Friday, May 14, 2010

Two Weeks, Ten Books

I recently was lucky to spend two weeks at the Yaddo Artists Colony, where besides working on various short writing projects, I read ten books, purely for pleasure.  Here's what I read and what I thought:

1.   Probation by Tom Mendicino:  This book begins with a bang.  A married man’s life is turned upside down when he’s arrested for getting a blow job at a rest stop in North Carolina.  The court sentences him to a year’s probation and mandated counseling for sex addiction, with the stipulation that if he can make it a year without getting arrested again, his record will be expunged.  I very much liked the bitter, sarcastic narrative voice and the level of detail.  The action flagged a bit as the book went on, and the upbeat ending left me suspicious.
2.  The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara:  A dramatization of the Battle of Gettysburg.  The book was fun to read, like an entertaining history lesson, if a bit dry.  Many of the famous soldiers like Robert E. Lee were well-sketched, though there were so many names and battles going on, I kept getting lost.
3.  The Curse of the Appropriate Man by Lynn Freed:  Just a fantastic, sharp collection of short stories, charged with sex and laced with biting humor.  My favorite story, about a South African exchange student staying with a stereotypical Jewish family in New York, made me laugh and cry at the same time.
4.  A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee:  This beautifully written novel takes up the point of view of a morally compromised Japanese immigrant living in Massachusetts.  Now a bored retiree, the main character attempts to sort through his memories and current failed relationships.  I was with this book all the way until the ending, which felt too abrupt.  I didn’t quite buy it.  Still, it was an elegant read.
5.  Controlled Burn by Scott Wolven:  Why aren’t more people reading Scott Wolven?  His rough-edged short stories about hardscrabble lives on the margins of society are written in crisp, honest, precise prose that startles on each page.  These stories take you to places that aren’t often visited in American fiction.
6.  The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisburger:  The main character has a bone to pick with her abusive boss, the high-powered editor of the world’s leading fashion magazine.  I have a bone to pick with Weisburger.  Whenever the editor appears on the page, I’m riveted.  Whenever the abused minion is left to her own devices, whining about her boyfriend, eating chips on the couch with her best friend, I’m flipping ahead to get back to the devilishly stinging portrait of the mean boss.  Which begs the question, shouldn’t Weisburger be grateful to her famous former boss for providing her with such great material?
7.  Bedwetter by Sarah Silverman:  If you find Sarah Silverman’s shtick funny and adorable, as I do, you’ll laugh at much of this book.  The frankness with which Silverman described her betwetting and early years was fun to read as well.  As the book went on, however, it lost its way, skating too quickly over Silverman’s adult years.
8.  Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood:  One of the reasons Atwood is such a genius of a writer is the fact that she can create such convincing characters and dialogue in such fantastical settings.  Sci-fi writers ought to be required to read and study her.  Literary writers ignore her at their own peril.  I didn’t like this book as much as its “companion novel,” Year of the Flood, which I found more exquisitely detailed and emotionally involving, but this book pulled me in and didn’t let me go.
9.  The BFG by Roald Dahl:  Dahl is great.  This book was just okay.  I’d rather have re-read his classic novel Mathilda.
10. I tried to read Great Expectations by Kathy Acker, but the prose was too flat for me.  I gave it up after a few pages.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

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Monday, April 05, 2010

Don't Judge a Book by its Hype

Every once in a while, a book comes along with such hype attached, you want to avoid reading it, just out of spite. I must confess that for me, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower was just such a book. I'd heard so much about this story collection for so long, the thought of actually picking it up made me feel as if I were being manipulated.

My loss.

I'm not sure what the proverbial tipping point was, but a few weeks ago, I was browsing in a bookstore and picked up a copy of the paperback. Last week, I began to read.

What I love most about this book is the prose. It's hard to believe this is Tower's first book. Line after line, the guy comes up with arresting stuff like "a steeply sloping apron of mud that sang with mosquitoes and smelled terribly of fart gas." His language is lovingly precise. Corduroy pants are "wide-waled," fake antique furniture is ornamented with "buboes" (I had to look that one up!), a hunky model is described as wearing a "cowrie shell necklace" and having "salt stiff hair." Tower's also great at finding metaphors that are both evocative and appropriate to his characters' world, like a character from the rural South who is described as having the figure of a "pickle jar."

Speaking of characters, what a range of beautifully etched lives are on display in this collection. The complexity of Tower's characters sneaks up on you as read. They're not necessarily people I'd want to have lunch with, but they keep surprising you with their vulnerability. As Tower makes painfully clear, they are people worth caring about, each with his or her own hurts and needs.

Finally, I love the way each of these stories end, usually on a wistful and inconclusive note. You know that the story has gone somewhere, but where is not immediately certain, a lot like life. In workshop (Tower went to my MFA program), I'm sure Tower must have heard that his endings weren't satisfying. I probably would have said the same thing myself. And yet, there's something Chekhovian about the way his stories move forward in time. It isn't necessarily that his characters or their lives have changes so much as they have shifted, in ways that will only become clear later in the characters' lives, or for readers, upon rereading.

My only quibbles about this book were the last two stories, which felt more like exercises that hadn't been fully fleshed out in comparison with the masterful stories that preceded them. But who cares? This is easily one of the best story collections I've read in a long time.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When a Story's Not a Story

What elements do you need to make a story? Most fiction consists of plot, character, and setting, in some combination. The proportions of each always change, but generally all three are present. But what about fiction that doesn't fit the mold, fiction that "colors outside the lines" so to speak?

In general, I'm not a fan of this type of fiction, but to my mind, for these kinds of books to work, they need to compensate for the lack of what's not there with a stronger emphasis on what they do have to offer. No plot or character? Then you'd better have one hell of a setting. No character or setting? Then that had better be some plot you've got to tell.

But what about if you have none of the Big Three? Then I guess all we're left with is language. In which case, your language had better be fucking incredible.

Though I typically prefer fiction that does what fiction's traditionally expected to do, some of my favorite books are ones that don't follow any rules, that make up their own logic as they go along. So here is a list of some of my favorite rulebreakers, in no particular order except alphabetical.

How German Is It?, Walter Abish
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker
40 Stories, Donald Barthelme
Snow White, Donald Barthelme
An Invisible Sign of My Own, Aimee Bender
Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, Mark Binelli
The Decameron, Boccaccio
Stories, Jorge Luis Borges
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell
Try, Dennis Cooper
Samuel Johnson is Indignant, Lydia Davis
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
The Lover, Marguerite Duras
Veronica, Mary Gaitskill
Loving, Henry Green
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
The Question of Bruno, Alexander Hemon
A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera
Homeland, Sam Lipsyte
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Self-Help, Lorrie Moore
Notable American Women, Ben Marcus
The Captain's Fire, J. S. Marcus
Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
Purple America, Rick Moody
Open Secrets, Alice Munro
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
Martin and John, Dale Peck
The Streets of Crocodiles, Bruno Schulz
The Emigrants, W. G. Sebald
The First Hurt, Rachel Sherman
Collected Stories, Jean Stafford
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace
The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead
The Waves, Virginia Woolf
Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why Write? Why Read?

A week ago, I was honored to give the commencement keynote address at the Stonecoast MFA Program. I'd like to share one section of the speech I gave, which I think speaks to the current unease about the state of where we are now as writers and book lovers:

Recently, in the Guardian newspaper of London, novelist Philip Roth predicted that in 25 years, the number of people reading fiction would be similar to the number of people who today read Latin poetry. If you talk to authors, editors, and journalists who cover writing, they'll all say the same thing: The publishing industry is at one of the lowest points that it's ever been.
Then again, the good news, I guess, is that for as long as I can remember, people have been saying the publishing industry is at one of the lowest points that it has ever been. I keep asking myself, when was this supposed golden time in publishing when everything was just hunky dory?

Still, I do think it's fair to say the notion that a work of writing is something you can exchange for money is becoming fairly outmoded. Increasingly, text, or what is currently referred to as "content," is something that readers expect to be delivered for free to their laptops, their PDAs, and now their Kindles. Remember when we used to buy newspapers and magazines? Remember when we used to buy books in bookstores? Remember when books were made out of paper instead of digital blips?

When it come to the economics of publishing, we don't know if we're at the bottom of a valley that in the coming years will slope back upward, or if we've reached a new plateau that will stretch on to the foreseeable future. Maybe writers will once again be able to earn money for their work in the way that they used to. Or maybe they won't.

However, there is one thing I do know for sure: The world needs writers.

I'll say it again. The world needs us. In fact, at the very time that our work seems at its most under-read, undervalued, underappreciated in every way, the world needs us worse than ever, even if the world doesn't quite know it yet.
Facebook is fun. Tweets are witty. Blogs are, well, blogs are blogs. But none of these can inspire us in the same fundamental and important way that a great work of literary fiction and pop fiction, non-fiction, or poetry can. I'm thinking here of E. M. Forster's simple yet desperate plea from his brilliant novel Howards End: "Only connect..." Forster wasn't talking about searching for a WiFi connection to log onto his Gmail account. He was asking us to see and hear each other in the fullness and richness of the individual human experience. And in an age when we're constantly glued to screens, both for work and for pleasure, we as human beings are in desperate need of genuine connection with each other and ourselves.

Now, I don't mean to sound like some Luddite here. I love my laptop too. I watch TV pretty much every day. I check my email almost every five minutes.

Also, I want to make clear that the acts of reading and writing are not the only antidotes to our contemporary illness of being entertained to death. There is a whole host of things we all could do each day to fulfill E. M. Forster's maxim of "Only Connect": We could cook a good meal for a friend, we could listen to someone we love, we could close our eyes and take several deep breaths of air, or simply smile at someone we don't know. All of us, writers or not, can do things like these every day to connect more deeply with the very real world in which we live, at a time when it's so much easier and more tempting to simply connect to the Internet.

The trouble is, that all too often we forget to connect. So we need certain people in our society to remind us to do just that. And that's where writers, you guys, come in. By laboring each day to use black ink-marks to recreate our world, or to imagine worlds that don't exist but just maybe might, you stir us to stop watching passively as our lives go by, to stop whatever we're so busily doing for one moment, and... think. Just think.

So that's why I think it's not only advisable but in fact essential that as writers you keep doing what you're doing, published or unpublished. And if not for us, then do it for yourselves. Even if your work touches just one soul, it's worth it. And maybe that one soul just happens to be your own.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Book Recommendations from 2009 for 2010

I've never liked year-end top ten lists, though I'm a sucker for looking at them, because it seems strange to me that good films, books, albums should occur in multiples of ten. What's so special about the number ten that causes newspapers to make a festish of it every year?

With books, this practice seems more than a little suspect given that no one can possibly have read all the books that have come out in a certain year and from those select the ten "best." Therefore, I'd just like to note a few books I read in 2009 (where they were published in that year or not) which gave me pleasure:

1. The Big Sleep and Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler: This guy knows his way around a metaphor like few writers I've seen. I love the plots, I love the worlds he creates, but above all I love hard-bitten, wisecracking Philip Marlowe.

2. Lake Overturn by Vestal McIntyre: A fun, old-fashioned, Dickensian style novel bursting with characters and incidents.

3. Reading Jesus by Mary Gordon: A chance to explore the New Testament with a stirring and sensitive reader.

4. Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton: The first half of this book is a devastating take down of our obsession with status. The second half, in which de Botton advises us on how to deal with the problem of status, is not as strong as the first.

5. Don't Cry by Mary Gaitskill: Why this book wasn't more celebrated is beyond me, especially since it so radically outshines other clunkier efforts (like the new Lorrie Moore novel) to capture the tragedies of the Bush era. Stylistically and emotionally, a triumph.

6. The Scenic Route by Binnie Kirshenbaum: A former teacher of mine and a wonderful, wry stylist, Kirshenbaum creates a vivid profile of a passive life.

7. A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein: Lauren is also a friend of mine, but trust me, this book well rewards your reading. It's a gripping emotional thriller about a man determined to protect his son to a fault. Read this book.

8. Unaccustomed Earth and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: Lahiri's first book, Interpreter of Maladies left me baffled about all the praise it received. Her second two have made me a believer. I can't think of another contemporary author who musters so much sympathy for her characters. I loved these two books.

9. The Believers by Zoe Heller: I read this in one day. Heller makes you care about her characters, even if you don't particularly like them.

10. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama: Whatever you think of the politician, you have to be impressed by the writer. A surprisingly naked and moving self-portrait.

11. Perfume by Patrick Susskind: A terrific ode to the senses, with many beautiful passages.

12. The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain: The kind of book you dip in and out of rather than read cover to cover. The anti-European bias is unintentionally hilarious and a fascinating portrait of American reverse snobbery when it's offensive.

13. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh: I've read it before, but I reread it this year. What a strange book! The first half is one of the most beautiful portraits of young love I've ever read. The second half is a lame apology for it.

That's it for now. I'd love to hear from other people about books they enjoyed...

Friday, December 11, 2009

This is Just to Say...

I'm busy as hell right now with the end of the semester, but I thought I'd leave a quick note to say I've been immersing myself in the novels of Raymond Chandler and they are indeed, delicious...