Monday, January 31, 2011

Recommended Reading

Check out this essay, by one of my once-upon-a-time students, Megan Kruse, in Narrative magazine (log in required, but it's free).

Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales edited by Kate Bernheimer

I'm a well known fairy tale fan and so of course I liked this anthology of fairy tales by some of my favorite authors (Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Lydia Millet...)(full disclosure: editor Kate Bernheimer once published a piece of mine in her journal Fairy Tale Review). But probably my favorite of all the tales was "A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin" by Kevin Brockmeier. And it had me thinking about how I read. I sometimes ask students what, if anything they are picturing when they read a story, and some of them will claim that they are seeing it play like a movie in their heads. But I don't really believe them. If they are, they are filling in an extraordinary amount of gaps. I mean even the most scenic of stories doesn't have anywhere near the visuals of a movie. When I read, I am hearing language and usually not seeing anything. Occasionally an image will stand out and I'll see it clearly--sort of like looking at photos while someone narrates their vacation (good grief, is reading fiction like a power point presentation?). I'm bringing this up now because in this story the main character is ... Half of Rumpelstiltskin. I mean he's literally half of a person. And Brockmeier does describe him: "He is like a pentagram folded across its center or a tree split by lightning. He is like the left half of a slumberous mannequin, yawning and shuddering, rising from within the netlike architecture of his dreams. He is like that exactly." But if I spent the story actually visualizing, or if Brockmeier spent the story constantly describing, half of a man...well, it would be a huge and horrible distraction. Instead Brockmeier calls the character Half of Rmpelstiltskin all the time. That's his name. And the repetition gives a lot of strength to the voice while tonally affecting how you think of the character. I can't help but have sympathy for someone cut in half, and of course, it's more important thematically that he's half of himself than it is literally. The story wouldn't work if Brockmeier didn't treat the half body realistically (it hops, its clothes don't fit Gregor Samsa's bug body, it's treated as absolutely real) but because Brockmeier doesn't constantly worry about what you're seeing, you aren't distracted by the body, but are instead engaged by the character. I'm not suggesting we abandon physical description (I like the slide show portion of my reading) but just want to suggest that the sound attached to a character, the tone of how he's described, can do more work than the statistics of height, weight and hair color.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada

I found this book in my parents' basement--as you might have imagined I grew up in a house where there were, and still are, books at every turn, quite a few of which are more than a hundred years old (my reading habits are genetically encoded over many generations). Anyway I decided to give it a go since Fallada has been put back into print recently. The novel was first published in the US in 1933 (it's German) and weirdly this copy has a book plate from the Public Library of Mexico City, Special Tourists Rates, 10 cents a day ... this could be quite a fine if they come after me (2011 - 1933 x 365 x .10 = 2487!). Anyway one thing that struck me about this German novel from the 1930s is how few mentions of the Nazi's are in it ... oh, they're in there, but they are definitely just a bit of colored border surrounding the central plot. Now if a 21st century writer were to write a novel about 1930s Germany, I suspect they might be inclined to talk quite a lot about Nazis and the coming storm. Because it's hard for writers of historical fiction not to forecast the future... after all, they know it already. But it's important not to. One of the keys to historical fiction it seems to me is to hide an awful lot of what you know...rather to imagine what it was like to not know.

The novel by the way is really resonant for today's times as it's about a young couple who get themselves deeper and deeper into debt in a one thing leads to another fashion. And while you can see their trouble's coming (why oh why did he buy that dressing table) you feel sorry for them (I know exactly why he brought that dressing table--as a failed last stand against further humiliation) and while you know that things are going to get worse you wonder just how... As I was reading the novel I kept describing it as funny though now that I look back, the dominant tone is unquestionably sad. But there is a comic sensibility to some key scenes and one or two characters, and those are a pretty vital contrast to the depression.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Joe by Larry Brown

Okay, I thought I would blog more given sabbatical...but it turns out, no, I won't. And I waited so long to blog about this novel, which I liked a heck of a lot, that I forgot I had read it until I saw my blog entry draft just now. But according to my notes what I wanted to say was when beginning writers include alcohol and other drugs in their stories they almost always show the character at the height of his/her altered-mind-state. The point of the whole scene becomes to show what it's like to be in that state. But it is in fiction as it is in life, and the drunk person at a party is usually the least interesting one to listen to. So scenes of drunkenness can be a bit dull to read. Now in Brown's novel there are a number of alcoholics. The two primary ones are the most heroic character in the novel and the most villainous one in the novel. The villain, you know right away, is a drunk and a villain. The hero, it takes you some time to realize is also a drunk. Which alters your thinking on the villain a little (not much). But Brown is also savvy about how he uses drinking in the novel. He doesn't stay long in scenes of drunkenness and doesn't go into the minds of characters when they are drunk (their drunken points of view just wouldn't be that interesting), but rather he lingers in the consequences of their disease. And with the hero, when he finally acts out in a state of drunkenness, you realize this is not an escape from who he is and how he acts (the typical drunken teenager trying to be someone else via alchohol), instead you realize that this rage reflects his real despair that he has been fighting so hard to suppress. What Joe does when he's drunk suddenly shows the reader the difference between who Joe wants to be (and fights to be most of the novel) and who he instinctively is. And suddenly you realize that Joe's kind acts throughout have been this heroic fight against his natural inclinations, and so in his downfall, he becomes both more tragic and more heroic. The alcohol instead of being some deus ex machina that gets a character to do something dramatic he would normally otherwise never do becomes a way to reveal the character's deepest despair...when he's sober.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I've been hearing about this young adult novel for years and meaning to read it for just as long. It's a page turner and well done. And I suspect the things that bugged me about it only bugged me because I'm an adult and not really of the intended demographic. The novel sets up two mysteries at the start--the first, what is going on with this narrator (who is an intense and emotional fellow) and two, who is he writing to (the novel is epistolary and the first letter makes clear he does not really know the person he is sending the letters to). Both questions get answered, but what was interesting to me was that the answers ultimately meant very little to my experience of the novel. The reason that he's a little off is not exactly predictable so much as it is familiar, but without giving it away, I only think it felt familiar because I'm a grown-up and this isn't the first time I've read about that subject. If I were a teen/pre-teen this might well be my first exposure and therefore much more powerful. The recipient of the letters isn't completely explained but is revealed just enough that you don't wonder who s/he is...but I really didn't care at all who s/he was...which raised the question for me: would the novel be better or just as good if it wasn't written in the form of letters? The first person voice is definitely a strength of the book, but first person narratives don't need to be justified... So then is the form of a letter particularly key to the novel...not so much, I mean we get direct dialogue and scenes which make it more like a conventional first person narrative than actual letters. And because the recipient is a stranger--barely more familiar to the narrator than I the reader am--his/her existence doesn't change how the story is told either. The novel could just as easily have been written as a diary (though the narrator makes a point of saying he doesn't want to write a diary because they can be found). Thematically the letters probably matter--they mean the narrator is reaching out to someone, but not to someone who he is close to. But that doesn't really change my reading of the novel or my understanding of the narrator. So is the point of the letters just to set up a mystery for its own sake? I kind of think it is. And in the end, that seemed fairly okay. I zipped through the book not just because it's young adult but because I was very curious about what would happen and what was going on. And I felt satisfied in the end--it's an emotionally effective novel. So did it matter that I was "tricked" into wondering about something that didn't matter that much ultimately... I guess not. Which surprises me. My impulse would be to say, of course that matters, don't do that. But as is so often the case, writers get away with a lot as long as they write a good story.