30 July 2007

Agee, Jonis. The River Wife. New York: Random House, 2007.

Full disclosure: I'm thanked on this novel's acknowledgments page. In name and everything.

(Don't you always think that full disclosure statements in book reviews and pieces of reporting always have a tinge of bragging in them? The above one sure does.)

I'm interested in point of view, here, with this novel, in that it's a multigenerational epic of the 19th and 20th century South following the life and loves of a French fur trapper and river pirate Jacques Ducharme. It's an adventure novel, in many ways, with terrible storms and destruction and murders and pirating and animal attacks. And yet the novel never spends time with Jacques, it spends all its time with Jacques's wives. This sounds like a critique and I'll go ahead and say that a lot of times during the reading of the novel I wanted to leave the house and go watch Jacques do something exciting, but it's clear that Jonis is telling reader to bring such a critique on, that the obvious and near indefensible critique of this critique is this question: Why can't adventure novels be written about the women who go through them?

For instance, here's a sentence I'd never write this for a ton of reasons: "Leland St. Clair's law office was about as interesting as a men's social club in a Henry James novel." First, I don't remember having coming across social clubs in Henry James's novels. Surely they're there though. Second, aren't men's social clubs in Henry James novels incredibly interesting? In a post metrosexual world any men's social club is interesting and worth spending time reading about, I say.

But maybe they're not. Here's how Jonis describes it:
On the walls hung pictures of St. Clair posed with a variety of cougars, bears, geese, deer, ducks, turtledoves, rabbits, any and everything that could be killed with a gun, bow, or knife. There he was, in every one of them, a man so small he could pass for a boy, with a little toothy smile on his face. His clothes were always so neat and clean in the pictures, she suspected that he hadn't killed the game at all, just had someone to do it for him. Which was what she worried about—that he was one of those. (319)
It's easy for me to think that men's social clubs were frequented by men that were fascinating. But one can just as easily think about men that were small. Today this seems important.

I want to quote one more paragraph because it's my favorite. Ignore the names of all the characters. Just know they're all caught up in each others' pasts:
While L.O. and Hillis went off into the dark bowels of the store in search of nippers, Maddie wondered if living in one place for generations made all of them appear to each other as Hillis did to her. Ethel May saw the outrage of Jacques Ducharme every time she saw his daughter, so it wasn't her at all, not entirely or mostly, it was the collective wrongs of another person's life she wore like a suffocating robe over her own. Only it wasn't just Da she was responsible for, it was his first wife Annie, Omah and Frank and their children, her grandmother Miz Maddie and mother Laura, Frank Boudreau, and now Valdean French. Maddie barely had room for her own crimes and L.O. No wonder Ethel May and the others were so outraged, it was a burden having to carry herself and her encyclopedic history. Human memory—what a compendium of lies, half truths, myths, bound by the flimsy string of a person's life. No wonder there was something of guilty relief when a person died, got themselves off the page, gave everyone around them the chance to close at least one book. Maybe they were better off not knowing each other very well, but then they had to make up what they weren't witness to—and that was even more arduous. (373)
Why live in a place where everyone in town knows not just you and your past transgressions, but the past transgressions of your parents and grandparents before you? People like to think of history as a foundation for existence, but look how also it's a burden, something to be overcome. There's nothing that better shows me the mean, spiteful hell of life in tiny towns than do the two novels of Jonis's that I've read, and yet her heroines always stay put. I'll have to ask her to explain this to me.

26 July 2007

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007.

I had the unfortunate experience of running across an unannounced spoiler on that wretched Wikipedia while innocently trying to recall who Malvolo Gaunt was, and so I'll spare you any and just say Finished! I'll also thank the good people at Scholastic for releasing HP books in the summertime when it's quite easy for me to shut myself in for two days and consume the books in a couple extended sittings.

Oh, and with the final episode of the Sopranos at the beginning of it, this summer is becoming the Summer of Big Things Ending. It's possibly the essential end of the decade, seeing as how this series of books and that series of television shows have been at the forefront of everyone's consciousness for the past 7 or 8 years. And now they're done. I know it's not the technical end of the decade, but it might be the end of the era as people study it.

The twentieth century really began in 1914, didn't you know? Certainly the Oughts, or whatever it is we end up calling this decade, well end with the dethroning of Bush, and that's only a year away.

So get ready, is all I'm saying.


Oh, and this is my 100th post here. I thought that would have happened a lot sooner....

Hornby, Nick. A Long Way Down. Read by Scott Brick, Simon Vance, and Kate Reading. Penguin Audiobooks, 2007.

Listened to this on a trip to South Dakota with my boyfriend, through the Badlands and camping in the Black Hills. Probably a bad match—the landscape doesn't really absorb the wet urban feel of this London novel. Oh well.

Nick Hornby's High Fidelity is one of two books that I claim aren't as good as the movies made from them. (The other is Augusten Burroughs's Running with Scissors, mostly because as a hack writer he's simply unable to understand and create reader sympathy for any of his characters; they remain caricatures from start to finish, and the guy who wrote the screenplay for RwS did a great job of inserting brief moments of emotional resonance that Burroughs couldn't recognize if it was announced with trumpet fanfare.) I don't recall why I feel this. Something about the ending of the movie being different from that of the book? Some character cut out I felt was inessential?

It's probably an unfair analysis. What I like most about Hornby is how he's able to achieve emotional intensity and profound realizations in a language that never stops being colloquial and chatty, and the result is never cheesy or forced. Because I listened to an audiobook, I don't have any examples of this for you, sorry. Can you trust me?

In many ways, Hornby is a great model of a writer, like, career-wise. Or maybe a better way to say it, one more clear, is to say that I'd like very much to be the kind of novelist he is. I'd like to write stories about people living in the world today, middle-class people, sure, fine; I've never tried to present myself as someone who wrote passionately about the working classes, or about foreign or oppressed cultures. And I'd like those stories to show people reading them ways to go about living in the world today, and I'd like them to be nice, easy reads that do their job for the 10 or so hours people spend flipping its pages.

It doesn't sound like a very ambitious thing to wish for. Writers my age and probably of my gender seem to wish for brilliance on the level of formal innovation. J. S. Foer being the model writer that comes to mind. But I'm not this kind of writer, and I don't really think that way or come to writing (or reading) that way. I think I've tried a lot of times to be that kind of writer and I'm finding it all frustrating and upsetting and if, as Jim Shepard says, writing is supposed, at the initial stages, to be driven by play, like a kid in a sandbox, then why, I wonder, do I continue to try to write things that frustrate me at every stage of their creation? When was the last time I had fun writing something?

And anyway, I think wanting to be like Nick Hornby is extremely ambitious. I mean, how hard to tell stories anyone can take the time to care about!

10 July 2007

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of A Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. New York: Pantheon, 2005.


Answers to the quiz below:

1) a
2) b
3) d
4) c

03 July 2007

Carson, Anne. The Autobiography of Red. New York: Vintage, 1998.

This is the first novel in verse I've read, or at least that I can remember reading. The verse is very prose-y so I read quickly through it, which I know from experience is usually a bad idea when reading poetry.

At any rate what's worth mentioning about this book (which rewrites an obscure Greek myth about Herakles and Geryon, a red dragon whose red cattle the former killed as one of his labors) is how devotedly Carson adheres to the old Show Don't Tell dictum.

Pop Quiz!
Match the line of writing, which evokes a feeling inside a character, to the external action in the novel that caused that feeling.

1. "Geryon felt everything in the room hurl itself / away from him / towards the rims of the world."
2. "[His] voice went bouncing through Geryon on hot gold springs."
3. "Wrongness came like a lone finger / chopping through the room."
4. "Geryon's hot apple icepicks / all the way up his anus to his spine."

a) Geryon receives the news that his mother wouldn't be home for hours.
b) Geryon receives a phonecall from a long departed lover.
c) Geryon's car is suddenly surounded by men with guns.
d) Geryon is stoned and wishes he were in love.

Answers next time, but my point here is this: the answers should be apparent. If Carson is a good writer, which she undoubtedly is, her language should recreate the experience. Show Don't Tell isn't just a way to make things more specific, or to "liven up" one's writing. Show Don't Tell is the only way this wholly abstract and intellectual thing called reading and writing can become a physical experience.

There are words you can feel in the hollow gut of you, once someone's found a way to put them in the right order. Finding and ordering these words is what's so hard all the time.

Schaffert, Timothy. Devils in the Sugar Shop. Denver: Unbridled Books, 2006.

There is a lot of value to be had in novels that take place inside of a single day. First, one gets a nice and clear idea about a story's duration. The end of novels is always a certain amount of tangible pages away, but with novels of this type those pages become almost like countable minutes in a way I at least find a bit exhilarating. This is the second thing one gets from reading one-day books: the exhilaration of novelty and literary feats. It's a lot easier to set a story in Sometime and allow successive scenes to contain between them a period not much better delineated than as A While. It's hard to not waste time. It's very hard to make one character's hour seem just as engaging as the one before it.

And so this is the third thing. If one's to believe as I do that novels are the best way to learn about what's good about ourselves then novels that take place in a day are extremely valuable things, because if there's only one case they make it's a case for the dramatic thrill of the everyday. Schaffert's novel has moments that may never enter into the life of any of us, here—a suburban swingers party, a septuagenarian dropping her drawers atop a coffee table, adulterous liaisons—but for the most part what pulled me so quickly forward to the end of his narrative and his characters' day was the easy honesty of a simple conversation had across a table by two old friends.

Were it not this late in the evening and were I a better-read man I'd use this to make a case that it's women and women's writing or chick-lit or female characters or what have you that are far better equipped (Sorry, Ulysses!) to handle the one-day novel than men are.