Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

This recent novel is about an orphan who starts life as the baby in a practice house (a fake home used to teach home economics on a college campus in the 1940s) and so, early on, is raised by the teacher of the home ec course and a rotating class of co-eds. The novel is well-written, just as many novels nowadays are well-written, but it is for sure that premise--practice house baby--that makes the whole thing original and interesting. So it turns out having an original idea--a topic that hasn't been covered much--can go an awful long way. Here's the picture of Bobby Domecon (Domecon for Domestic Economics) that apparently inspired the author.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Six Memos for the Next Millenium by Italo Calvino

Harvard's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures often yield some interesting books (I'm currently reading Eco's which is partially a response to this one). In this case, Calvino died before he could actually give the lectures or even write the last one, but for those who fear aging, these are good evidence that a sixty-year-old brain can work mighty well. The first two essays struck me as especially useful..."Lightness" on using (metaphoric and literal) lightness and heaviness as contrasts in fiction and "Quickness" on using (physical and intellectual) quickness and slowness... but my favorite quote is: "Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature."

Friday, April 23, 2010

My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

This 1965 memoir of a man and his dog was one of the New York Review of Books early reissues and it has the humorous sensibility of Three Men and a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), just minus two of the men and the boat. But the great thing is rather than being a totally sentimental, life lessons learned from a dog kind of thing, it's really about Ackerley's obsession with giving Tulip, a pure-bred Alsatian, a chance at motherhood. Or rather what he seems to view as the important part of motherhood--giving birth. (you can tell he's not that concerned with her parenting skills as he seriously considers, but ultimately rejects, drowning all of the pupplies once they're born). And this obsession reveals a lot about what some men assume women need to feel fulfilled. And probably reveals a lot about Ackerley's own hang-ups.

Readers looking for Marley and Me moments would probably be horrified by the graphic and insanely funny descriptions of Ackerley's efforts to mate his dog with appropriate purebreds and even more graphic and insanely funny descriptions of his attempts to prevent inappropriate nonpurebreds from mating with her--capped off by the moment when he finally allows Tulip to make her own choice (let's just say it all ends with a small dog upside down being dragged across the yard while in congress).

Now it's well-known I'm a friend to dogs (also small children and hedgehogs), so naturally I enjoyed this book; and the general American love of dogs at least partially explains the overall popularity of dog books in their many forms. But reading this memoir made me ponder just why dog books are so consistently popular and what fiction writers can learn from that popularity...

I think part of it is we can attribute qualities to dogs that would be cartoony in people... heroism, blind loyalty, and intense romance all get projected into dogs without straining reader's credulity (I believe this also explains the popularity of Edward Cullen and Jacob Black)...also human characters are allowed to behave in ridiculous manners with their dogs (human devotion beyond sense is permitted because these animals never grow out of their dependent infancy)... so really it's the human-dog relationship that's interesting, more than the dog itself. Humans seem very loveable when they are loving their goofy, needy dogs. And similar types of overly-devoted, irrational relationships pop up in a lot of popular fiction (between humans and their pets, but also between humans, and between humans and vampires and werewolves...) but in literary fiction, they don't read believably. Literary readers get annoyed at characters who are blindly devoted or ridiculously foolish... so what can the literary writer learn from the popular reader's love of dog lit? Perhaps that relationships interest readers more than single characters do? I dunno, I'll have to think about it some more...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Recommended Reading

One of my beloved mentors, Melissa Pritchard, has an article in this month's O magazine on embedding with female soldiers in Afghanistan. I bought my copy at Tattered Cover, the great indie bookstore in Denver. Oh how I love a great indie bookstore.

Also, you can read my short-short "A Boy on the Back of His Mother's Bicycle" in the latest, and last issue, of Isotope. A lot of literary magazines that are dependent on university funding are in trouble...if there are journals you want to keep around (especially if you dream of publishing in them), put your money where your hopes are. Now.

And the 2010 fiction issue of the Atlantic is online.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

If you like...

...Charles Baxter's essays on craft, then you will surely like The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction by Robert Boswell. In my opinion, Graywolf has become the go-to press for craft writing.