Thursday, May 27, 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino

Content-wise, I wasn't as held by this short novel as much as by other Calvino works...but all the same it gave me new ideas about what can hold a novel together. Years ago in an nonfiction workshop one of my students, upon reading Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius said, it showed me new things writing can do... That feeling happens quite a bit when one first starts reading seriously as a writer... less so, the more you've read simply because you've been exposed to a lot more. But what I appreciated about this novel was how it's centered on a character's point of view--how he sees the world--more than on what happens to him. It reminded me in a few ways of The Mezzanine, perhaps it was an evolutionary step for Nicholson Baker. Anyway, my point is a lot of writers are wary of reading because they don't want to be influenced. But what I see in early classes is poorly read writers write really unimaginatively. In my experience, creativity is born of knowledge not of an absence of knowledge. So read on!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Siam by Lily Tuck

A slender novel that stays almost entirely in scene, covering the time that a young wife lives in "Siam" with her mysteriously employed husband during the Vietnam War... the novel is fairly episodic, rotating between moments of the wife taking language lessons, visiting tourist sites with other wives, going to the dressmaker, watching her husband swim, having conflicts with her staff... and while those events are all united by their impact on the protagonist (and on her central conflict, adjusting--or not--to her new home), Tuck interestingly uses an exterior storyline to act against the episodic nature of her plot. At the start of the novel, the wife meets a high society American who disappears days later. And while his disappearance is not of any direct impact on her, it becomes a main event that holds the whole novel together--and which she obsesses about. So it works as a kind of skeleton to the novel despite the fact that the drama of it (kidnapping! murder!) are exterior to the central events of the protagonist's plot. In this case, the skeleton does more to shade the novel's tone and theme than it does to actually change the protagonist.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This nonfiction work has been all over the various media because the summary of the book is immediately interesting--the most famous cell line in all of science--the HeLa cells--they were used to create the polio vaccine, study cancer, and test the affects of the atom bomb--turn out to come from Henrietta Lacks, an impoverished black female tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer in 1951. And her family never knew about the HeLa cells until scientists came calling wanting to study their DNA...and explaining their case so poorly that Henrietta's husband first thought she has been kept alive in a lab being studied for twenty some years...

Apparently Gordon Lish liked to tell fiction students that all you needed to structure a story was any three things which you would then braid together, alternating between the three. (a useful trick for when you get stuck). And one of the reasons this book is so good is because it tells not one story but three--the story of Henrietta, the story of her cells, and the story of her descendants. Structurally the braid moves you quickly along all three story lines, but most importantly each storyline is equally interesting. Her descendants are deeply deeply affected by the loss of their mother, and all the misunderstandings that follow their contact with researchers are tragi-comic, and most importantly, their belief that Henrietta is a kind of angel (her cells are called immortal and they believe her soul is in her cells) shows just how high the stakes are for them. But interestingly one of the most moving storylines for me was one that falls just outside the braid--the story of Henrietta's first daughter who was probably mentally disabled and died, unknown to her siblings, in a government home. It's a storyline that does not fit tidily in with the other three, and mainly seems to be there at the impetus of Henrietta's other daughter, who always thinks of her lost sister as a casualty of losing her mother, but it's a slightly messy addition that works to deepen the emotion of the narrative. A case for not keeping your structure or even your topic too clean and controlled.