Monday, March 31, 2008

Skip This One

Overall, this Booker-Prize winning novel disappointed.

Despite many stunning sentences, I didn't find "the transformative power of Enright's language keeps the story's freight from burdening the reader," as this reviewer wrote. This dark novel's protagonist, Veronica, is so full of self-pity and bitterness, it is hard to sympathize, much less find interest in her dilemma about a murky sexual abuse memory from childhood. No light refracted in this bitter ale of a story, and I couldn't help but think of Charles Baxter's dead-on essay, "Mistakes Were Made," from his collection Burning Down the House. In the essay, Baxter skewers Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, a "moody novel" which also features a "recovered memory scene."

Says Baxter:

The characters' emotions are thus ordained, and the narrator gathers around herself a cloak of unreliability as the novel goes on...the mood itself often seems impenetrable, because the characters, including the men, are not acting upon events in present narrative time but are reacting obscurely to harms done to them in the psychic past from unthinkable impulses that will go forever unexplained...[my emphasis]
Among the accolades for this book, my own reaction comes closer to this reviewer's:

Veronica is so self-pitying and self-absorbed that no clear detail about anyone in her life emerges from the endless me me me. Most of her siblings (there are 11 of them) are just names on the page, and even [her brother] Liam is close to a cipher.

Veronica, meanwhile, puts the saddest, ugliest spin she can on any subject that occurs to her — whether it's her grandmother Ada's "overused pubis" or her husband's erotic imaginings — only to back away after a page or two and concede she has no real information. Again and again she comes up with generalizations ("History is only biological — that's what I think") or summations of character ("For a woman like Ada, every choice is an error, as soon as it is made") that have nothing to support them.

Hankering to read powerful, dark tales of rage and beauty? I recommend anything by Mary Gaitskill.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Shout Out for Bulls Island

There's an interview with NY Times Bestselling author Dorothea Benton Frank up on A Good Blog Is Hard to Find about her latest novel, Bulls Island. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Bulls Island is one of the few protected, pristine barrier islands left on the SC coast:

Q. What was the inspiration for Bulls Island?

A. Inspiration for BULLS ISLAND arrived the same as it did for my otherbooks - it's that little voice in your head that says What if? I wasreading something in the NY Times about protected islands beingdecommissioned and made available for public use and I thought well,
that could never happen to Bulls Island. Or what if it did? And how
could that actually unfold?

Then I started thinking about the story and knew it should be a struggle
to save it, to preserve its pristine habitats, and that the struggle
should expand to the people determined to develop it versus the people
to whom it was unclear if this was a sound idea - was it environmentally
ethical? Or was it just another case of greed? And what if those opposing teams were comprised of star crossed lovers, long separated and perhaps by a tragedy? What if they happened to bump into each other across a conference table?

And what if every character in the story had a secret - some bull they
were hiding and on the bull scale it could go from zero to a billion?

That's how the process starts . . .

Read the full interview here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ragged hollow first drafts

I like what Walter Mosley has to say about revision here on his website:

"First drafts are ragged hollow things that need to be revised, rephrased, and rethought again and again until something transcendent occurs on the page; until the story becomes life."

He notes that, for him, rewriting has become second nature, even for emails and memos, and that constant rewriting "borders on obsession, but there's nothing wrong with that."

I agree. And I think the more you write, the more skilled you become at rewriting...spotting the glimmers of gold among the sludge. I've found revision is the real work and real pleasure of writing fiction; and when you hit "the zone," where all time stops and your focus is in another dimension...that's da bomb.

btw, I regularly recommend Walter Mosley's no-nonsense yet inspirational book This Year You Write Your Novel to folks in my workshops. It's so very wise: "Your first draft is like a rich uncultivated field for the farmer: it is waiting for you to bring it into full bloom."
Here's the opening:

The first thing you have to know about writing is that it is something you must do every day—every morning or every night, whatever time it is that you have. Ideally, the time you decide on is also the time when you do your best work.

There are two reasons for this rule: getting the work done and connecting with your unconscious mind.

If you want to finish this novel of yours within a year, you have to get to work! There’s not a moment to lose. There’s no time to wait for inspiration. Getting your words down on the page takes time. How much? I write three hours every morning. It’s the first thing I do, Monday through Sunday, fifty-two weeks a year. Some days I miss but rarely does this happen more than once a month. Writing is a serious enterprise that takes a certain amount of constancy and rigor.

But will and regularity are only the beginnings of the discipline and rewards that daily writing will mean for you.

The most important thing I’ve found about writing is that it is primarily an unconscious activity. What do I mean by this? I mean that a novel is larger than your head (or conscious mind). The connections, moods, metaphors, and experiences that you call up while writing will come from a place deep inside you. Sometimes you will wonder who wrote those words. Sometimes you will be swept up by a fevered passion relating a convoluted journey through your protagonist’s ragged heart. These moments are when you have connected to some deep place within you, a place that harbors the zeal that made you want to write to begin with.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Hyacinth Haze

The Hyacinths are blooming. Heavenly scent. At times nearly overbearing, perhaps to match their formal intimidating appearance? Blowzy and laid back--they ain't.

Hyacinths resemble French Renaissance ladies in waiting...with that Marie Antoinette do, and all.Uncanny resemblance, n'est-ce pas?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Memorable Secondary Characters

Juno was the best movie I saw last year. Witty. Original. Best original screenplay? No kidding.

Not that No Country for Old Men wasn't worth seeing. It was. But between it and There Will be Blood (and yeah, Daniel Day Lewis=fabulous), and all the other testosterone-inspired films...sans women...well, let's just say Juno was a twinkle of glee in a sea of bloody violent gore. (I'm no shrinking violet, either...I count Pulp Fiction and Apocalypse Now among my all time favorite films.)

Here's a terrific guest blog from David Freeman about how Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody managed to make those secondary characters shine. (Thanks to Southern Comfort for the reference.)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Awakening to A New Earth

Not only have I devoured Eckhart Tolle's book A New Earth
I'm participating in Oprah's 10-week live web event, which discusses each chapter. It's a phenomenal series of online "classes" and a life-changing book. Of course, I was immediatly pulled in from the opening, "The Flowering of Human Consciousness":
"Earth, 114 million years ago, one morning just after sunrise: The first flower ever to appear on the planet opens up to receive the rays of the sun. Prior to this momentous event that heralds an evolutionary transformation in the life of plants, the planet had already been covered in vegetation for millions of years. ...One day, however, a critical threshold was reached, and suddenly there would have been an explosion of color and scent all over the plant--if a perceiving consciousness had been there to witness it. Much later, those delicate and fragrant beings we call flowers wold come to play an essential part in the evolution of consciousness of anther species. Humans would increasingly be drawn to and fascinated by them..."
As Eckhart Tolle writes in Stillness Speaks: "Look at a tree, a flower, a plant. Let your awareness rest upon it. How still they are, how deeply rooted in Being. Allow nature to teach you stillness." The flowers pictured here are Oconee Bells, found nowhere else on the earth except Oconee County here in the Upstate of SC. Photo courtesy of Mike Landau.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tip O' the Hat to James Joyce

As a kid, St. Patrick's Day was just a day to wear green so you wouldn't get pinched. (Or starting around age 13, an excuse not to wear green so you would). It wasn't until I married a New Yorker, an Italian-American, that I learned what at fabulous joyful day St. Paddy's is.
Of course, there are the pints of Guinness--although I'm wild about whiskey myself--and music and dancing and passion. There are bars involved.
It's hard not to be moved by the Irishman who wrote, "But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires." Bono? Good guess. Try Joyce. James Joyce.

In celebration of St. Paddy's, a glimmer of gold from the gorgeous Dubliners:

... Or if Mangan's sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea, we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan's steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed, and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.

Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop- boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs' cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O'Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

--James Joyce, "Araby" from Dubliners

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

Joshilyn Jackson is on booktour to promote her third novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. Here's her schedule, and an interview with Powell's, and her tremendously entertaining--and addictive-- blog, Faster Than Kudzu.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Good Chemistry

Kudos to Ron Rash, one of four finalists for the prestigious 2008 Pen/ Faulkner Award for Fiction for his short story collection Chemistry and Other Stories. More about the award here.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

I finished reading Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know last week. Although I don't read a lot of mysteries or crime novels, it's a pleasure to read one of this caliber. Suspenseful, well-drawn characters, and a structure (interspersing flashbacks and present time) that increases tension and keeps pages turning.

A different kind of reading experience: Alice McDermott's After This--a literary novel about an Irish-Catholic family in Long Island-- where the tension arises not so much from events as from the characters' inner lives and complex relationships with each other. Close observations, lyrical, gorgeous but precise language that the author is known for. The structure--chapters that are vignettes really-- includes small but important moments, with foreshadowing that at times takes your breath away (hints, for example, of how a character will, years later, die). I once had the honor of having Alice McDermott as my workshop leader at Sewanee Writers Conference, and the most important lesson I took away from it was her insistence that scene breaks, the space between chronological events, leaps in time--are ways to let the air in and, as she put it, "lets the reader make the connections."

Case in point: Jane Hamilton, in her review of After This for the Washington Post, observes how one character's fate (rather than being covered specifically) is "embedded in details throughout the book":

The oldest Keane child, Jacob, a quiet, fragile boy, goes off to Vietnam, but McDermott does not devote a discrete section of the novel to his tragic experience. Rather, his story is embedded in details throughout the book: in the neighbor's experience in the war; in the story of Jacob's namesake, who died in the trenches in France; prefigured in his mother's viewing of Michelangelo's Pieta at the New York World's Fair, when Jacob is still a child. The war is there on the dune when the little boys play with toy soldiers and again when they climb in the jungle of a fallen tree in their yard. Jacob's time in Vietnam is not specifically told because it is a story, after all, that is as common as dust: a boy killed for nothing far from home. That void in the novel, and the fact that Jacob lives only in the grief of his family, make his loss all the more sorrowful.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

All Over the Map

Titlepage.TV is up and running, and it's terrific. For readers and writers alike: this is not to be missed.

Featured books by authors in this episode

Lush Life
Richard Price
» Buy
The Finder
Colin Harrison
» Buy
A Person of Interest
Susan Choi
» Buy
Beautiful Children
Charles Bock
» Buy

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Tempest in the Heart

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin is one of my daily blog stops. Today's focus on sentimentality--and quote from Robertson Davies-- is worth repeating. Bold sentences are my favorite:
People who prate of sentimentality are very often people who hate being made to feel, and who hate anything that cannot be intellectually manipulated. But the purgation through pity and terror which is said to be the effect of tragedy is not the only kind of purgation that art can bring. The tempest in the heart that great novels can evoke is rarely tragic in the strict sense, but it is an arousal of feelings of wonder at the strangeness of life, and desolation at the implacability of life, and dread of the capriciousness of life which for a few minutes overwhelms all our calculations and certainties and leaves us naked in a turmoil from which cleverness cannot save us. Sentimentality is sometimes used by critics as a term to rebuke artists who seeks to sound this terrifying note; if the artist fails, he is probably merely sentimental, but if he succeeds, the critic would be wise to slink back into his kennel and whimper till the storm passes.
--Robertson Davies

Sentimentality's evil polar opposite is cynicism. As an occasional book reviewer (a.k.a "critic") as well as novelist, I've been both judge and judged. It helps to remember "the tempest in the heart" is sacred.

Tomorrow: Three books I read last week...

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Living Wild

I'm certified.

Bird feeders, fountain, native seed-bearing plants, trees...and before you know it, you're living wild.

From the National Wildlife Federation: "This property provides the four basic habitat elements needed for wildlife to thrive: food, water, cover, and places to raise young."

From William David Thoreau:
"In wildness is the preservation of the world."
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