Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Nerd King: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

It's Junot Diaz' birthday today, so I thought I'd offer up this small, humble gift of a review.  My take on his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao first appeared at January Magazine in November 2007.

Meet Oscar de Leon, dubbed “Oscar Wao” by bullies who liken him to the foppish Oscar Wilde.  Our Oscar is a fat, virginal Dominican-American teenager who carries a Planet of the Apes lunchbox to school, spends hours painting his Dungeons & Dragons miniatures, and who knows “more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee.”  If Nerd was a country, Oscar would be its undisputed king.  Oscar is the kind of kid we would avoid on the subway--sweaty, mumbles to himself, inevitably invades personal space, probably has bad breath.

In Junot Diaz' debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, however, Oscar is the flame and we are the moths.  An earnestly open-hearted protagonist, he draws us to him until we incinerate in the intensity of his character.  He's a pitiful-but-hopeful loser we can all relate to, even the Prom Kings and Queens among us (who might just be the loneliest kids in school).  The last time I was this absorbed by a fictional weirdo was in 1989 when John Irving's Owen Meany forced me--FORCED, I SAY!--to read his Prayer twice in rapid, thirsty succession.  Oscar held me captive in much the same way with his sweaty, sticky fingers tightly gripping my attention.

Let's return to Diaz for a moment.  To use the words "Diaz" and "debut novel" in such close proximity is something of a joke.   Diaz has been a middleweight figure on the literary scene for 11 years, based almost exclusively on his previous (and only) book Drown a collection of interconnected stories which, like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, chronicled the Dominican immigrant experience with a startling freshness.   If you turn to the back flap of that 1996 book, you'll read an author bio which concludes with "He lives in New York City and is at work on his first novel."  To say that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was much-anticipated would be an understatement.

Why the long wait?  Tick off the reasons on your fingers: writer's block, the paralysis which comes with sudden fame at a young age (Diaz was in his late 20s when the accolades started flooding in), working for years on an apocalyptic novel about the destruction of New York City which was eventually trumped by the sur-reality of 9/11, you name it.  Little of that matters now, except as a  footnote, because at last we hold in our hands the solid, substantial The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  We can rest assured that Junot Diaz won’t turn out to be this generation’s Harper Lee.

As the novel's title implies, this is the chronicle of Oscar's brief, candle-flame life and charts his quest, but rarely conquest, of girls.  You see, not only is Oscar a Tolkien-loving, Star Trek-quoting, Dungeons & Dragons-playing geek, he's a horny geek whose tongue hangs out and eyes bulge in cartoon cones every time a pretty girl walks by.  The only trouble is, as his friend Yunior points out, "Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber."  Save for one unexpected happy encounter late in his life, Oscar's lust is unrequited, but he takes this as a matter of course because he believes his family is living under the cloud of an Old-World curse called fuku brought to our shores by Columbus.

Despite wearing the family doom like a black, itchy sweater and meeting romantic rejection at every turn, Oscar optimistically journeys through the 1970s, "the dawn of the Nerd Age," Diaz writes.  It's Oscar against the world and he glumly accepts his lot in life.  "Everybody," he says at one point, "misapprehends me."  As he grows older and retreats from his peers into the other-worlds of Lovecraft, Doc Savage, Asimov, Heinlein and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Oscar begins to think his destiny is to be "the Dominican Tolkien."  He spends countless hours holed up in his room writing science-fiction and fantasy sagas.  If Diaz had allowed, Oscar probably would have spent 11 years working on his masterpiece; but, as we're always reminded, this is a brief life.  Oscar tries to make the most of it, even with the fuku hanging over his head.

The novel is more than just a Nerd Epic, however.  Diaz pulls out all the stops in an attempt to tell an all-encompassing story of immigration and assimilation.  Oscar lives with his mother and sister in the ghetto of Paterson, New Jersey, and the novel is as much their story as it is his.  We're just starting to groove with sympathy for fat little Oscar when Diaz suddenly shifts gears and takes us into the world of Lola, Oscar's beautiful, athletic sister who has a stormy relationship with their mother, Belicia, a "hardnosed no-nonsense femme-matador."  Then, before too many more pages have elapsed, we're deep in that woman's story, in an extended flashback called "The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral," where we learn what happened to her in the Dominican Republic to make her so bitterly protective of her children.  These chapters, along with the rest of the book are truly shaped by heartbreak, a tragedy written by fuku which determines the course of everything to come, from Oscar's obsession with Shazam to Lola's runaway teen saga.  Draped across the entire book is the narration of Yunior, Oscar’s reluctant protector who relates this sad saga in a voice that reverberates with hip-hop slang, tough-guy ghettospeak and, most of all, a slowly-dawning love for his friend the dork.

Diaz proves to be something of a risk-taker.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao bravely assumes there is an audience of readers who will sit through a long novel in which the English and Spanish languages mingle without the author once stopping to translate the unfamiliar words.  The gist of what the Spanglish phrases mean is pretty easy to pick up, and for those readers who absolutely have to know what guapa or chuleria mean ... well, an English-Spanish dictionary is as close as the Internet.

Diaz also hopes his readers will come to the table with some knowledge of Dominican history, specifically the tyrannical regime of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961 and who, if Oscar is to be believed, was master of the fuku.  Trujillo who?  You know, the "portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery."  If your mind is as blank as mine when it comes to the island's past, never fear: Diaz replays the highlights of Santo Domingo History 101 in footnotes which annotate the novel.  Yes, footnotes.  The novel is peppered with them, as any well-respecting Screed of Nerd should be.  Diaz understands most of us don't know squat about Dominicans and, as in Drown, he brings us briskly into the light.  (Pay attention to Trujillo, though, because he plays an important role in Oscar's destiny.)

Diaz never lets the pace lag and his sentences remain fresh and sharp throughout.  One woman is described with "eczema on her hands looking like a messy meal that had set."  Later, Yunior tells us what it's like to be mugged: "my guts feeling like they'd been taken out of me, beaten with mallets, and then reattached with paper clips."  Through his wondrous use of language, Diaz brings the book alive and makes it tremble in our hands.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an epic in the truest sense and in its fat, endearing hero's chest beats a Homeric heart.  Oscar leads us through his unflagging quest for happiness, while Diaz tumbles us through a century of Dominican history and shows us how the brief life of one lonely boy can epitomize the immigrant experience.  This novel was well worth the decade-long wait.

Friday, December 30, 2011

An Apology

Last week, an email from The Quivering Pen went out to nearly 1,800 addresses.  I suspect about 1,500 of those recipients had not expected this email, nor did they even want it in their Inbox.  I'm here to apologize for that mass emailing, which came about as a glitch in a new format (via Mail Chimp) which I'm trying out for my weekly Quivering Pen updates.  Instead of sending the email to just those who had signed up for Friday Freebie contests and/or expressed an interest in the blog in the past, the "This Week at the Quivering Pen" email was blasted out to all of my Gmail contacts.  You can imagine my embarrassment.  But if you can't imagine it, picture me crawling under the nearest rock and pulling it over my head.

I take only small comfort in the fact that the New York Times had a similar problem this past week.

Understandably, the reaction was, in some cases, strong.  One person went so far as to write (as a reason for unsubscribing): "The Quivering Pen nauseates me, more or less.  All these just-hatched writers laying down the law, as if they already knew all about it.  Narcissism and arrogance, lovely."

Okay, I can take a hint.

So, in an effort to try and smooth the waters and repair whatever damage I may have done to unwitting and unwilling Inboxes, I sincerely apologize for my error.  I'll be much more careful with those Mail Chimps in the future.


Friday Freebie: Spring by David Szalay

Congratulations to Sidney Woods, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro.

This week's book giveaway is Spring by David Szalay, freshly published by the never-disappointing Graywolf Press.  Before I go any further, let me just say how much I like this novel's cover design--the overhead shot of that bright, arresting orange-red umbrella in a sea of other gray umbrellas--very eye-catching!  Now, on to what's behind the cover....

Spring is Szalay's U.S. debut after being named one of The Daily Telegraph’s twenty best British novelists under forty.  Here's the publisher's jacket copy:
James is a man with a checkered past—sporadic entrepreneur, one-time film producer, almost a dot-com millionaire—now alone in a flat in Bloomsbury, running a shady horse-racing-tips operation. Katherine is a manager at a luxury hotel, a job she’d intended to leave years ago, and is separated from her husband. The novel unfolds in 2006, at the end of the money-for-nothing years, as a chance meeting leads to an awkward tryst and James tries to make sense of a relationship where “no” means “maybe” and a “yes” can never be taken for granted.  David Szalay builds a novel of immense resonance as he cycles though perspectives that add layers of depth to the hesitations, missteps, and tensions as James tries to win Katherine. James’s other pursuit is money, and Spring follows his investments and schemes, from a half share in a thoroughbred to a suit-and-tie day job he’s taken to pay the bills.
Here's what Margot Livesey had to say about the book: "In Spring the gifted writer David Szalay explores the complex worlds of love and money, each with their surprises and vicissitudes.  This novel made me feel in the best way that I was eavesdropping on a series of fascinating conversations.  An insightful portrait of contemporary England."

In an article earlier this year for The Telegraph, Lorna Bradbury spent the day with Szalay at the racetrack and wrote:
His third novel, Spring, is a literary reworking of Dick Francis, complete with a bulimic jockey, a shady trainer who sleeps with his stable girl and a tipster who’s arrested for stalking a stranger who catches his eye in a supermarket. And it is a riposte to John Updike, who Szalay views as the “king of writing about sex”. It dissects the desolation of a doomed relationship and is remarkable in that it does not shy away from sex or hide behind comedy. The Telegraph last year included Szalay in its list of the 20 best novelists under 40–and his new book bears that out. It is the only novel I have read that brings to life–and without too many cringeworthy passages–the reality of a sexual affair.

If you'd like a chance at winning a new paperback copy of Spring, all you have to do is answer this question:

In that same article in The Telegraph, what is the name of the horse which Szalay puts his money on in the first race?

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 5--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 6.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party.

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done either or both of those, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Chimp Off the Old Block: RIP, Cheetah

If you're anything like me, you were stunned into melancholy silence when you heard the news that Cheetah the Chimp had died at an animal sanctuary in Florida last Saturday.  Stunned not by the fact that the star of the Tarzan movies and Doctor Dolittle (Rex Harrison version) was gone from us forever (kidney failure) or that the silver screen was a little less gilded by his absence, but by the fact that he was even alive at all.  After all, the Hollywood ape was 80 years old when he passed on to that great tire swing in the sky--which is like 214 in human years.

Debbie Cobb, outreach director at Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, said, "He was very compassionate....He was always trying to get me to laugh if he thought I was having a bad day.  He was very in tune to human feelings."  She also said Cheetah was soothed by Christian music and enjoyed finger painting and watching football.

Not everyone shed a tear at the news.  Mia Farrow, daughter of Tarzan and His Mate co-star Maureen O'Sullivan, Tweeted: "My mom, Tarzan's Jane, referred to Cheetah-the-chimp as 'that bastard' - saying he bit her at every opportunity."

But, wait!  Hold the vine!

As it turns out, Cheetah may not have died after all.  It's all so confusing and the truth seems to hang in the balance of an "h."

Whatever the case, as Andrew Wood notes in his remembrance of the time he "interviewed" the prime-time primate, "We're not really mourning the animal, after all, but remembering the character."  In just the same way, we have fond memories of any one of the eight Lassies who saved Timmy from the well.  In something akin to racism in the animal world, "they all look alike" to us, don't they?  Hard to tell one Cheetah from the next.  Therein lies the confusion over which chimp turned us into chumps when we rushed to report the death of Tarzan's hairy co-star.

Since this is a "blog about books" and not top bananas in Hollywood, I should direct you to James Lever's novel Me Cheeta, a faux-memoir published in 2008.  The Guardian raved about the book, saying, "this is far more than a wicked spoof tell-all. It operates, and works smoothly and well, on several levels: it is a Swiftian satire, as Cheeta walks through the world observing human foibles and, often as not, getting them exactly wrong, as when he imagines that the stuffed animal heads adorning the walls of one actor's house are all old pets, lovingly preserved....[It's] a tribute that bursts its own narrative confines, and stands the novel on its head, to become a hymn to a certain kind of beauty and innocence."

I haven't read it yet, but it's long been about midway up my towering TBR stack (aka Mt. NeverRest).  The book opens with a "Note to Readers" in which Cheeta-without-an-h writes:
Dearest humans,
      So, it's a perfect day in Palm Springs, California, and here I am--actor, artist, African, American, ape and now author--flat out on the lounger by the pool, looking back over this autobiography of mine. Flipping through it more than reading it, to be honest: the whole Lifetime Achievement idea of an autobiography makes me a little nervous. The--what's the word?--the valedictory aspect to it. I'm in fine health, I'm producing some of the best paintings of my career, I'm in no obvious danger of being killed, but I've seen it happen too many times to too many of my fellow greats. The book comes out and, next thing you know, they've disappeared.
      Or, as Johnny once told me, "Soon as they start calling you an Immortal, you start worrying about dying."

That's Johnny as in Johnny Weissmuller, of course--the greatest Tarzan of them all.  Here's the scene where he and Cheeta first meet-cute in Lever's novel.  It starts with Cedric Gibbons, director of Tarzan and His Mate, saying:
      "Maureen, come on over and meet your new leading man.  And where's the King of the Jungle?  You seen him?"
      "He's on the escarpment," somebody said, and a number of the humans began to shout, "Johnny!  Call Johnny!" and in answer there came a faint, high call, like the trumpet of an elephant.
      "You seen Tarzan the Ape Man, Gately?  No?  We had a good chimp in that, but old.  Can't use it anymore.  What we're looking for--" and Gibbons was interrupted by the high call again.  "Johnny!  For Chrissakes.  What we're looking for is comic relief.  Uh, an animal with a bit of mischief, but easy for Maureen to handle..."
      Here Gibbons was interrupted again, by a human, a male adult, dropping down from a tree and sprinting over to us.  Dropping down from a tree!  He wore no clothes but for a flap of hide round his middle and I was amazed to see what a human's musculature was, how powerful they were underneath their coverings.  It was impossible that he wasn't an alpha, probably the alpha of the whole group, yet there was no tyrant's force in his face as he said, smiling, "Me on escarpment with second unit.  Me meet chimps now."
      "Oh, Johnny," Maureen sighed as she strolled over towards us.  She was not much more than half his height.  He was so upright.  "Do you think you could possibly give it a rest with the ape-talk?  It's just a trifle worrying..."
      "Jane angry.  Jane need smack on rear end," said Johnny.
      Yes, this was the king of the forest, all right....
      "Me meet chimps," Johnny said, looking over the four of us and holding out his hand.  Ah, humanity, you were so beautiful!  "Me Tarzan.  Me Johnny.  Who Cheeta?"
      ....Who Cheeta?  What kind of a question was that?
      I leaped into the home of the arms of the King of the Jungle and, for the second time that day, my heart tipped over.  It was me.  Me--Kong, Jiggs, Louis, the Cheater of Death--me, Cheeta.

RIP, whoever you were

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Tentacled Splendor of Nature: An interview with Gretel Ehrlich

Maybe it's because we're both from Wyoming, maybe it's because she lives so close to the land that her very words are perfumed with the loam of soil, maybe it's because I admire anyone who can be struck by lightning and not only live to tell about it but do it so eloquently* ("Before electricity carved its blue path toward me, before the negative charge shot down from cloud to ground...I could not hear because I was already dead"), but I've always been drawn to Gretel Ehrlich and her books, especially The Solace of Open Spaces.  So, when Michelle Gluch wrote asking if I'd be interested in posting an interview she recently conducted with Ehrlich, I didn't hesitate to say "Yes!"  Here's their conversation from Nov. 2, 2011:

Michelle Gluch:  One of things I admire most about your writing is your ability to take the reader along with you to these beautiful places.  Wyoming and Greenland hold a special place in your heart, but are there any other landscapes you would like to share with us?

Gretel Ehrlich:  Those are sort of my heart songs.  Wyoming is my real heart song and I’ve spent so much time in Greenland that it is just a part of my retina.  When most people see green, they feel comfortable; when I see snow and ice or an iceberg, I feel at home.  I like everywhere I am because every place has its own magical quality.  I mean every place outside of cities.  I like cities, too; but in the wilder world there’s birds everywhere, there’s all kinds of living things everywhere, and also the tentacled splendors of all sorts of trees and plants and microclimates.  So I’ve tried to absorb whole ecosystems wherever I am, and I’ve traveled in quite a few places: all over Japan, western China, Ladoch, Tibet, the tip of South America, and places in Europe and Scandinavia.  But I also find [that feeling] in some little gravel bar in a river someplace, or an island.  There are some little islands in Yellowstone Lake where I’ve been able to stay for a few days—every place has its own magic.  I just try to stay open to every place.

Nature is clearly a defining element in your life.  Was it always this way for you?

I’m afraid so.  Growing up, we had dogs and horses (I was raised on a horse farm).  My sister’s favorite story about me is about the time when she went out on a date and, after she came home, went into to my room to see if I was asleep.  The dog was in the bed with its head on the pillow and the covers all tucked in; I was asleep on the floor.  That pretty much describes how I feel about everything.  I don’t know, maybe it’s because I had trouble with people, but I prefer to think of it in a more constructive way.  I just feel that limiting dialogue with just one’s own species is really provincial.  So I’ve tried to expand my dialogue with everything.  I hope people don’t think I’m crazy.  I mean dialogue in a real way—not just talking to yourself—but really seeing everything as living and having its place in the natural hierarchy of things that we are co-resident with.

I like that word “co-resident.”

Yeah, instead of “I own this piece of property and I own everything on it,” I try to see it in a more open way.  It’s very nourishing when you do that.  I think “nourishing” is the operative word.  I just try to be outside every day, no matter what the weather.  It’s so complex, and so immensely beautiful.  I feel the beauty of the world really saves me from my own torments and habits and neurosis and doubts and self-hate.

So nature is your healer.


Whenever your name is mentioned, the response is always “Ehrlich, the nature writer?”  Do you consider yourself a nature writer?   How do you feel about being labeled in that way?

You know it’s fine with me.  It’s better than being called a travel writer because as I always point out—if you get up to go to the bathroom you’ve traveled.  We all wander around and look at things.  But of course, humans are a part of nature, so if I choose to write a novel that involves human characters as well as dogs and horses and wildlife and birds and trees and rivers, then that’s part of nature, too.  I try to appreciate how we’re all kind of organized together and how we influence and learn from each other.

It seems to me you have an extremely adventurous spirit—traveling the world, often alone.  I call this “feeding your fire.”  Which do you enjoy more—the adventures or the writing?

Writing is always hard but if you’re driven to do it, you just do it.  Traveling alone can be funny and wonderful and also harrowing. I have friends who have been all sorts of dangerous, difficult places; but I go to places where there is an opening for me.  Sometimes I have to go first to find that out.  There is no agenda.  It just happens.  I travel completely instinctively.  I don’t have anything organized in my mind.

You just go where the story takes you?

I just see something and I go.  It doesn’t always work out.  The first time I went to Greenland alone, the Inuit subsistence hunters said, “Oh, we thought you had money problems, boyfriend problems.  Are you going to commit suicide?”  The second time I went they just watched me a lot, as well as the third and fourth and fifth and tenth and fifteenth times.  But by then I was just a member of their extended family.

You became an insider.

Yeah, in a way.  You’re never really an insider.  As a writer, I’m not sure you’re even an insider in your own culture because you kind of have to stand outside to see where you are.  You know I had some adventures while traveling, but I don’t seek adventure per se.  It just sometimes happens.  Lately I’ve been writing about the tsunami survivors in northeastern Japan, and while it’s not such a physical adventure to go there, it’s a much more emotional adventure.  It’s a landscape so altered, so devastated, it’s kind of mind-boggling.  So, there are all kinds of adventures.

Your writing includes a lot of interior thought.  Can you tell me about your process?  Do you keep a journal while on these adventures?

I take constant notes.  I probably have thousands of notebooks.  There is no way you can remember everything.  I think it’s so important to get a sense of the real texture and nuance and grit of a place.  What does it look like today?  Every hour is different, and every minute is different, and certainly every month, and every season, and every continent, and every hemisphere.  I just got an email and a bunch of wonderful photographs from my friends in northwestern Greenland because on the 24th of October the sun went down for the last time until late February.  Every year they send me pictures on that day when there is still a little light in the sky.  It’s such a different world from what we have in the middle latitudes of North America.  So you have to kind of put your nose into these places in every way and really experience all these changes that happen in order to write about them.  In order to do that—unless you are some kind of strange genius—you need to be taking notes or the particulars will escape you quickly.

What things do you think are most important when writing about place or what advice do you give your writing student in regards to place?

When I had my ranch up in Wyoming, I would go on the same little walk around the lake, every day, at the same time of day.  I would see the changes within a continuum, but at the same time I was seeing the “whole” place: the Wyoming sky, the change of seasons, and dealing with livestock.  It is learning to be alert on every level.  It’s like looking at a cloudy sky, where there are layers after layers of clouds.  To understand what each layer means, and to understand what it all means together, and what movement through the sky means, and what the atmosphere is made of, you have to be curious and digressive in your writing.  You have to do tremendous amounts of fact reading, research reading, on one tiny topic, to write about clouds.  Then you have to think about and observe cloud formations—even if you are writing some tiny bit, you need to know to understand the whole thing, the whole picture.  From that, you can take what is resonant or alludes to in a metaphorical way, like internal cloud layers or internal weathers.

It sounds like you’re telling us to be open to not only a lot of research and hard work, but ourselves, and to new experience, and to where the story takes us.

You never know where the story is going to take you, but that is part of the fun, otherwise you’d get bored.  I never plot it out.  I just see where a day of writing takes me.  Of course if I am writing a book, I know what it’s about and I have my material amassed, but I don’t know how it’s going to lay down on the page.  But that's part of the fun; every day must have its own surprise.  The most important thing for everybody, for all of us, is to read deeply and widely.  If you're a non-fiction writer—particularly as an American writer—you need to start with Thoreau and Emerson then read everything that has been written since then.  And go back further to Montaigne, to people in Europe, to Asia.  Those are your teachers, those wonderful books, as well as the current ones coming out daily.  Resolve to read only the best.  There's not enough time to read junk.  I'm a terrible snob about what I read.  If you’re not a writer and you read all sorts of things, all right.  But, if you’re a writer and if you’re going to dedicate your life to it, then you have a lot of hard work and reading in front of you.

You’re a very prolific writer.  Do you have a favorite piece?

Oh, I don’t know, I like them all.  I like my book about when I first went to Greenland, before the climate crisis started destroying the ice there, called This Cold Heaven.  I worked on that book for many years.  I’d just write whenever I went there, in every season.  I traveled up the coast and I finally made it up to the top—the inhabited top part—of Greenland, and I had the luxury of time to sort of marinate.  So, that is one of my favorite books.

Is your favorite piece the same as your most successful piece?

No, just the opposite.  That book won the Pen Thoreau Award years and years after it was published, and that made me very happy.  But The Solace of Open Spaces has been my most successful book, as well as A Match to the Heart which is about being struck by lightning.  I’ve been writing so long, they each represent an era in terms of my writing and my life.  It’s hard to pick one.

What advice would you give to new and emerging writers?

Read a lot.  Take notes.  And wander around with a sense of curiosity and discovery and humor.  See what happens to you.  Don’t start out with an idea that is really firm then try to stick things in.  Start in a more raw place and see what kind of letters fall on your skin and go from there.

Michelle Gluch is an author with more than fifty Idaho-based stories, articles, and photographs published in print and on the Internet.  Her writings are rich with details of her home in Southwestern Idaho.  Michelle holds a BA in English with a writing emphasis, and is currently a graduate student studying Composition and Rhetoric, at Boise State University.

*In A Match to the Heart

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Soup and Salad: Lev Grossman on the Green-Eyed Monster, Jenna Blum on Inappropriate Skyping, Josh Getzler on an Agent's Pre-Pub Jitters, Sabina Murray on the Much-Maligned Short Story, Lydia Netzer on Purging Demons, Sherry Simpson on Writer's Block, Benjamin Hale on Dem Ole Post-Publication Blues, Anne Trubek on What America Used to Read

On today's menu:

1.  Early in his career, novelist Lev Grossman (The Magician King) almost let the green-eyed monster get the better of him when he judged himself against the success of other writers in his college class:
I was also convinced that my work was crap, and would always be crap, because I had no talent. There was some basis for this. There were other people in my year who also wanted to be writers, and they were producing some amazing stuff. Way better than my stuff. I still remember lines from their short stories. I was and am easily intimidated, and—through no fault of theirs—I was incredibly intimidated by these people. They were talented. They were confident. They were, for lack of a better word, glowy: they had that aura, the aura of genius in its youth, the aura of embryonic literary celebrity. I knew, to a certainty, that when we graduated and were weighed upon the great scales of the world, they would be blessed, and I would be damned. I would be the guy who appeared in the corner of the photograph in their biographies, making a weird face, who is denoted in the caption by “unidentified.”
I can relate, to a degree.  Though my undergrad years at the University of Oregon are mostly a fuzzy blur thanks, in part, to the fact I was a newlywed and a new father when I moved to Eugene, I do remember sitting next to a guy named Bruce in my writing class.  Bruce (last name now forgotten in the blur and fuzz) was thin, sported an equally-thin mustache, had dark hollowed-out eyes, and smelled like the bottom of an ashtray.  But Bruce also wrote some of the most amazing poetry I'd ever read to that point in my life.  I sat there casting sidelong glances at this guy who, I was convinced, was going to be Somebody someday.  I don't know what became of Bruce--he may be dead from lung cancer or he may be out there quietly publishing his mind-stirring verse right now--but I do know that for two golden semesters he spurred me to be a better writer.  And to force my eyes from green back to brown.

2.  Am I the only one who thought Jenna Blum's primer for writers Skyping to book clubs was hilarious?  For those of you who don't know what Skype is and think it sounds like a nasty comment you make about your co-worker's reindeer sweater at the office Christmas party, it's basically like something out of The Jetsons which allows computer users to talk to each other in "real time" via webcams.  It can be a real boon to pajama-clad, whiskey-swilling authors who want to visit book clubs but have a hard time getting dressed or putting down the shot glass.  I'm looking forward to Skyping with groups of Fobbit readers once the novel comes out in September.*  Hopefully, they won't catch me making faces like this:

3.  The days before a book comes out can be agonizing for the person waiting for its release: full of pacing, fingernail chewing, heavy sweating, inappropriate binging, and late-night calls to phone psychics.  And that's just for the novelist's agent!  At least, that's the case with Josh Getzler who's waiting for client Nancy Bilyeau's novel The Crown to hit bookstores in a couple of weeks.  Getzler describes what it's like to have the schpilkes from the literary agent's perspective.

4.  At The Story Prize blog, Sabina Murray (Tales of the New World) has some smart things to say about the short story:
The short story is a maligned form. Readers distrust it. Editors fear it. Reviewers ignore it. And writers, well, there is nowhere to hide in a short story, nowhere that a writer’s weakness is as exposed, so when the short story comes together and executes its promise, writers adore it. Otherwise, the short story can seem like the quippy, less ambitious relation of the novel. Of course, there are people who have built their reputation on the short story, people like Grace Paley and Alice Munro, so why is the short story seen to come up, so, well, short? One explanation is that the short story is held to the same standards as the novel—and how could a short story equal the breadth and depth of a novel? The truth of the matter is that most writers conceive of their short stories as part of a book, although the story has the added capacity to stand on its own. Novels in short stories come out of this—thematic linkage seems to imply a novel to some people, as if a novel is the only way that collected short stories can achieve the prestige of books. And of course there are short stories that explore the same characters, which is the most typical scenario of a “novel in short stories.” But it’s still not a novel. It’s a collection of short stories with a limited cast, and why would it aspire to anything else?

5.  Novelist Lydia Netzer (Shine Shine Shine) wrestled her inner demons....and won.  Getting the dark, bad stuff down on paper was one of the first steps:
I worry that I am not a good enough person to be a mother. That's me. I worry that I am a shitty wife. Again, me. I'm not looking in the mirror any more. I'm not looking at anything. Instead, in writing this book I have gone crawling down to a hole that is deep inside me, a black hole surrounded by claw marks and mold. Before, I did not know that it was there. But now, I have laid myself down next to it and plunged my arms into it. In dragging up whatever writhing awful thing came to my hand, and pulling it out, and examining it, I was publicly eviscerated myself. And it really did make things better. I don't feel bad about killing my mother any more. That is actually true.
--record scratch--  "Killing my mother"?  What the--?  You'll have to read "Confession of a Writer Full of Sin" to get the full story.

6.  Alaska writer Sherry Simpson confronts another fear of all writers: the Big Nothing.  Here's her very inspirational, very funny take on writer's block for the 49 Writers blog:
      By nature I am a fraidy cat whose long list of fears encompasses the ridiculous more than the rational: Alien abduction (all that probing). Unnervingly hairy arthropods (tarantulas). Mushrooms (they grow on manure!). The usual writerly anxieties afflict me, too: fear of failure, a craven need for approval, a sadistic internal critic who must be bludgeoned into silence.
      But a few months ago, something really scary happened to me. For the first time ever, I sat at my computer and had nothing to write about. Nada. Zip. The Big Zero. It was more writer’s blah than writer’s block. I felt de-sparked, un-mused, ex-inspired. What if this hollow sensation meant I had used myself up? What if there was no more there there (if there ever was)? Terrifying.

7.  At The Millions, Benjamin Hale describes the post-publication depression which is familiar to all writers (unless your name is Joyce Carol Oates and you're so busy oiling the pistons at the word factory you don't even stop to think about lagging sales and the disappointment of poorly-attended book signings).  I suspect this time next year, I'll really be able to relate to Hale's frank description of post-partum blues:
      In the months following the publication of my novel in February, I didn’t write any fiction for a long while. This was due in part to being very busy with traveling, teaching, touring, writing nonfiction and little essayettes like this one, but also in part because of a particular type of depression that some other fiction writers I know have also experienced: the strangely sinking, empty feeling that comes after publishing one’s first book. At times I was thinking things along the lines of, “What’s the point of any of this bullshit? What have I accomplished? What have I changed? Maybe I should move back home and go back to painting houses.”
      You work with single-minded devotion on something for years with hope, anxiety, desperation, ambition, daily dumping the greater part of your energy into the dream of seeing this thing bound between covers and on display in a bookstore—and then it actually happens. As Bill Hicks once said in a monologue about quitting smoking, “You know, in a way, I feel sorry for people who’ve never been addicted to anything. They don’t know what it’s like to want something that bad… and get it.”  True—the elation of seeing your book in a bookstore for the first time is ineffable. But like the cigarette, it’s followed by a vacuous wake. So what now? After the last ripples from the initial splash of attention (if you’re lucky enough to get one) fade, after the bookstore readings are over, after the young, first-time novelist’s amuse-bouche taste of glamour is swallowed, digested, and passed: now what? Well, congratulations—you’re a writer. This is your job now. So get to work. Write another book.
Hale's mini-essay, by the way, is part of The Millions' annual Year in Reading series in which writers talk about the best books they read over the past twelve months.  If you haven't already been following the series and if you have five distraction-free hours to spend with the Internet and if you have an unlimited budget to add new books to your wish list, I highly suggest you hightail it over to The Millions right now.  The roster of this year's contributors is far too long to list here, but how about Jennifer Egan, Nathan Englander, Charles Baxter, and Elissa Schappell for starters?

8.  In an earlier** essay for the New York Times, Anne Trubek (A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses) wrote about the reading habits of America in the late 19th century--specifically, the books which were read by residents of Muncie, Indiana, which Trubek says has long been called America's "most typical" town.  Fortunately, the town's librarians saved their records and the recent discovery of ledgers and notebooks allows us to get a good snapshot of every book checked out of the library more than 100 years ago:
What do these records tell us Americans were reading? Mostly fluff, it’s true. Women read romances, kids read pulp and white-collar workers read mass-market titles. Horatio Alger was by far the most popular author: 5 percent of all books checked out were by him, despite librarians who frowned when boys and girls sought his rags-to-riches novels (some libraries refused to circulate Alger’s distressingly individualist books). Louisa May Alcott is the only author who remains both popular and literary today (though her popularity is far less). Little Women was widely read, but its sequel Little Men even more so, perhaps because it was checked out by boys, too. The remaining authors at the top of the list—Charles Fosdick, Oliver Optic, Martha Finley, L. T. Meade and others—have vanished from memory. Francis Marion Crawford, whose novels were chiefly set in Italy and the Orient, was checked out 2,120 times, whereas Dickens, Walter Scott and Shakespeare circulated 672, 651 and 201 times respectively. Fiction was overwhelmingly preferred, accounting for 92 percent of books read in 1903.

*If you're a member of a book club who'd like me to visit via the magical mystery of Skype, email me.  I promise I'll be dressed from the waist up and will try not to slur my words.

**I'm behind in my Soup and Salad compilations, so sue me.

Monday, December 26, 2011

My First Time: Leora Skolkin-Smith

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Leora Skolkin-Smith, author of Hystera, a novel which I've previously mentioned here at the blog.  Her first published novel, Edges, was edited and published by the late Grace Paley for Ms. Paley's own imprint at Glad Day books.  Edges was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award.  The Fragile Mistress, a feature film based on Edges, is currently in pre-production, and is scheduled to begin shooting on location in Jerusalem, Jordan, and New York.   Skolkin-Smith's recent publications include a piece from The Fragile Mistress, which appeared in Guernica Magazine.  For more about Leora Skolkin-Smith, please visit her website.

My First Mentor

Miss Gibson, my seventh-grade English teacher, was a young New England woman with a ruddy, but beautiful, face.  She looked like a downhill skier and was from New Hampshire.  She always reminded me of snow and the dark of winter.  She was shy, recalcitrant, and dressed in simple skirts and tailored button-down shirts.  After one class she called me to her desk.  I had written a story about exactly how the wind outside my bedroom window brushed against my cheek—I had really been wondering how people commit suicide.  My bedroom was up a few stories.  I called my story "A Day in the Life of a Fink."

"What an understanding you have of metaphor," she said.  After that, she met me in the mornings and we went together to sit in the school library, where she went over more of my stories, encouraging what was becoming a fever and passion to write.  Then one day we went to a place called Leonard Park which had a huge lake.  She introduced to me to a family of white, waddling ducks.  How awkward and funny they walked but how uniquely proud they were of their own oddness, she explained.

I called her thirty years later to tell her I had become a writer.  I think I frightened her.  "Do you know what it feels like to have someone call you out of the blue like this?" she said; and after that, she never answered my letters.

Still, I am very sure she was the first person to tell me writing would be important.  Wind and ducks figure abundantly in a lot of my novels.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Fezziwig Christmas

No matter where you are--Kokomo or Kabul, Portland or Paris--and no matter how many family members surround you (if any) and no matter how many gifts are wrapped and stacked beneath your tree (if any) and no matter if you believe in Santa Claus, Jesus Christ, Buddha or nothing at all, my wish this Christmas is that you all find the spirit of Charles Dickens' Fezziwig in your hearts.  Dance, my friends, dance!

“Yo ho, my boys,” said Fezziwig.  “No more work to-night.  Christmas Eve, Dick.  Christmas, Ebenezer.  Let's have the shutters up,” cried old Fezziwig, with a sharp clap of his hands, “before a man can say Jack Robinson.”

You wouldn't believe how those two fellows went at it.  They charged into the street with the shutters--one, two, three--had them up in their places-- four, five, six--barred them and pinned then--seven, eight, nine--and came back before you could have got to twelve, panting like race-horses.

“Hilli-ho!” cried old Fezziwig, skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility.  “Clear away, my lads, and let's have lots of room here.  Hilli-ho, Dick.  Chirrup, Ebenezer.”

Clear away.  There was nothing they wouldn't have cleared away, or couldn't have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on.  It was done in a minute.  Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter's night.

In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches.  In came Mrs Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile.  In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable.  In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke.  In came all the young men and women employed in the business.  In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker.  In came the cook, with her brother's particular friend, the milkman.  In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress.  In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow.  Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them.  When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, "Well done," and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose.  But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer.  But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind.  The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him.) struck up "Sir Roger de Coverley."  Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs Fezziwig.  Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

But if they had been twice as many--ah, four times--old Fezziwig would have been a match for them, and so would Mrs Fezziwig.  As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term.  If that's not high praise, tell me higher, and I'll use it.  A positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig's calves.  They shone in every part of the dance like moons.  You couldn't have predicted, at any given time, what would have become of them next.  And when old Fezziwig and Mrs Fezziwig had gone all through the dance; advance and retire, both hands to your partner, bow and curtsey, corkscrew, thread-the-needle, and back again to your place; Fezziwig cut--cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger.

When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up.  Mr and Mrs Fezziwig took their stations, one on either side of the door, and shaking hands with every person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas.

Hand colored etching by John Leech from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Bears We Never See

The radio program Reflections West is featuring a short piece I wrote for them called "The Bears We Never See."  It's about the time my wife and I went camping in Glacier National Park and let fear get the better of us.  The essay begins:
      My wife has never been disemboweled by a bear.  But there was a time when, in the wild spaces of her imagination, she felt a set of three-inch razor-sharp claws start at her navel and work their way up.  And the teeth.  Oh yes, the teeth, the thick saliva, the hot bear breath and the eggshell-crunch of her skull.
      This is what we remember from that summer vacation to Glacier National Park.
      I planned the trip for months. I highlighted trails on maps, I learned how to stuff a sleeping bag into a sack the size of Kleenex box, I calculated the weight of freeze-dried meals. If I thought of bears at all, I placed them in the distance, far upwind of where we'd be standing.

Each week, Reflections West pairs reflections like mine with a passage from literature and history. For my essay about ursus arctos horribilis, they used a wonderful poem by Lowell Jaeger called "An Awakening."

Click here to listen to the entire program

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Freebie: Devotion by Dani Shapiro

Congratulations to Thomas Baughman, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Big Machine by Victor LaValle.

This week's book giveaway is a new paperback copy of Dani Shapiro's memoir Devotion. Shapiro is also the author of Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy and the novels Family History, Black & White, Picturing the Wreck, Fugitive Blue and Playing with Fire.  For the last Friday Freebie of 2011, I could think of no more fitting book to offer blog readers than Devotion.  For many of us, this holiday season is a time of reflection and resolution--if nothing else, we resolve to be less harried and more contemplative.  Shapiro will help us get there through the quiet music of language.  Here's the publisher's description of the book:
In her mid-forties and settled into the responsibilities and routines of adulthood, Dani Shapiro found herself with more questions than answers. Was this all life was—a hodgepodge of errands, dinner dates, e-mails, meetings, to-do lists? What did it all mean? Having grown up in a deeply religious and traditional family, Shapiro had no personal sense of faith, despite repeated attempts to create a connection to something greater. Feeling as if she was plunging headlong into what Carl Jung termed "the afternoon of life," she wrestled with self-doubt and a searing disquietude that would awaken her in the middle of the night. Set adrift by loss—her father's early death; the life-threatening illness of her infant son; her troubled relationship with her mother—she had become edgy and uncertain. At the heart of this anxiety, she realized, was a challenge: What did she believe? Spurred on by the big questions her young son began to raise, Shapiro embarked upon a surprisingly joyful quest to find meaning in a constantly changing world. The result is Devotion: a literary excavation to the core of a life. In this spiritual detective story, Shapiro explores the varieties of experience she has pursued—from the rituals of her black hat Orthodox Jewish relatives to yoga shalas and meditation retreats. A reckoning of the choices she has made and the knowledge she has gained, Devotion is the story of a woman whose search for meaning ultimately leads her home. Her journey is at once poignant and funny, intensely personal—and completely universal.
Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) had this to say about the memoir: "I was on the verge of tears more than once in the course of Dani Shapiro's impeccably structured spiritual odyssey.  But Devotion's biggest triumph is its voice: funny and unpretentious, concrete and earthy-appealing to skeptics and believers alike.  This is a gripping, beautiful story."

If you'd like a chance at winning a SIGNED copy of Devotion, all you have to do is answer this question:

What is the name of Shapiro's blog?  (You can find the answer by visiting her website)

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 29--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 30.

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by "following" this blog through Google Connect (to find the "Join" button on the right side of this page, scroll partway down to the section labeled "Followers").  Once you've followed (or if you're already a follower of the blog), send me an e-mail saying "I'm following you" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Publisher of the Year: Graywolf Press

Here's the order in which average, everyday people (i.e., those who aren't heavy readers, obsessive-compulsive authors, or publishing industry insiders) think about books--when they think about books at all, which is not as often as HRs, OCAs or PIIs like to believe:

Genre ("I like mysteries, my Dad digs spy thrillers")
Plot ("I hear it has robots and Charlotte Bronte")
Title ("I think it's called Radon Weekend or Fallout Fling--something like that")
Author ("It's by that guy who wrote that other one about zombie accountants--I can't remember his name off the top of my head")
Format ("I don't do Kindle.  It's the Death Knell of books!")

Industry insiders will be disheartened to see one element which I left off the list, the one thing they probably think belongs at the top: the Publisher.  But let's face the facts: you'll never be standing in the line down at the DMV and catch someone saying, "Did you hear about that new book coming out from Knopf?"  And yet, that book you're holding right now would never have gotten into your hands if it weren't for the lowly, forgotten publisher.  Okay, maybe it would have if it was self-published by the next hot Young Adult writer who hustled to sell a gazillion copies of his zombie-accountant paranormal romance; but, for now at least, the publisher is a crucial link in the chain which delivers words from the author's head to our hands.

As a book reviewer and blogger, I probably pay more attention to publishing houses than do most readers outside the Inner Circle of Manhattan.  I receive catalogs on a quarterly basis, books on a weekly basis and emails from publicists on a daily basis.  I've come to the point where I can judge the quality of writing inside the padded Tyvek envelope just by looking at the publisher's logo on the mailing label.  There are few envelopes which get me more excited than the ones which arrive bearing that trio of wolves on the outside, and for that I'm awarding the first annual Quivering Pen Publisher of the Year Award to

Sure I'm just a small-potatoes blogger and it's a dubious honor without compensation, trophy or paper certificate, but it's a good excuse for me to highlight the most overlooked player in the book's lifecycle.  As an aside, let me just say as someone who's been blessed to have my work accepted for publication and who's managed to get an inside look at the editorial process this year, I can attest to the fact that a lot of care and compassion plays out behind the scenes at publishing houses--the kind of labor which will never been seen or acknowledged by readers.  Editors, associate publishers, publicists, art departments, sales managers, and interns rarely get thanked for their hard, invisible work which begins months or even years before the book arrives on the shelves of bookstores.  So, this is just one small appreciation for those vital champions of the written language.

This has been a remarkable year for Graywolf.  Not only did it turn out consistently-good new titles, the small Minnesota-based publisher got a huge boost when one of its poets, Tomas Tranströmer, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October.  Then, about a week later, another Graywolf title--The Convert by Deborah Baker--was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award.  Other 2011 honors to Graywolf authors included poets Tom Sleigh and Matthea Harvey who received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ander Monson whose Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir was named a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and The House of Widows author Askold Melnyczuk who was this year’s recipient of the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP).  I'm not entirely certain, but I suspect there were a lot of cake-and-champagne afternoons in the Graywolf offices this year.

But, really, every release of a Graywolf book is a celebration in and of itself.  In addition to the three excellent short-story collections I included in my Best Books of 2011 list (Volt by Alan Heathcock, American Masculine by Shann Ray, and In This Light by Melanie Rae Thon), other stand-out titles included The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen, Assumption by Percival Everett, In Caddis Wood by Mary Francois Rockcastle, The Other Walk: Essays by Sven Birkerts, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer, and Beautiful Unbroken by Mary Jane Nealon (which, after hearing off-the-cuff reviews from readers of this memoir about a nurse caring for her dying brother, tops my list of must-reads in 2012; people who talked to me about Beautiful Unbroken had a hard time finishing their sentences because they'd get so choked up with emotion--that's how good it is, they claim).  Top poetry collections from Graywolf included The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands by Nick Flynn, Army Cats by the aforementioned Tom Sleigh, and Midnight Lantern by Tess Gallagher.

Leafing through the Spring 2012 catalogue, several titles have my radar on full alert: Boleto by Alyson Hagy, City of Bohane by Kevin Barry, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka, No Animals We Could Name: Stories by Ted Sanders, and a vibrant new translation of Dante Alighieri's Inferno by Mary Jo Bang.

In the front of its catalog, the publishers describe themselves as "dedicated to the creation and promotion of thoughtful and imaginative contemporary literature essential to a vital and diverse culture."  That's true, but what they forgot to mention was how their books fill readers with light--the kind of glow that can only come from experiencing the excellence of language, the kind of radiance that makes you want to sing aloud.  So, join me as we lift our voices in a howling chorus of praise for Graywolf!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Year of Reading: Best Books From Other Years

I am beseiged by books.  Every day (except Sunday, when my mail carrier is home nursing her aching back in an epsom-salt bath) my mailbox is stuffed with envelopes bearing the Next Great American Novel.  At least that's what publicists assure me.  That's all well and good, and I really am looking forward to quite a few new releases coming our way in 2012, but it leaves me little time stop and smell the roses of past years.

In 2011, I made a concentrated effort to hit the new-release Pause button every so often and find a previously-neglected-but-much-longed-for book on my shelves.  It told myself I shouldn't be driving so fast into the future that I forget about the old books.  And by "old," I mean anything published in 2010 or earlier.  There are many more books I wish I'd made time to read (poor Lolita, she's still sitting over there in the corner, just off the dance floor, looking all lonely and unread), but when I did go all retro with my reading, I found that, to quote the Jewish philosopher Felix Adler, "The past speaks to us in a thousand voices, warning and comforting, animating and stirring to action."

Here, in descending order of publication, are the voices I'm glad I stopped to hear:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell

In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet the titular character is a clerk in a Danish company deployed to Japan in 1799 to help keep trade running smoothly and to negotiate East-West politics with the xenophobic locals.  While there, he meets and is enamored by a female medical student who, despite her sex, is garnering a reputation for her skills as a midwife.  Things happen, the girl is sent to a remote mountaintop monastery where even worse things happen and Jacob is tortured by guilt over his inability to prevent tragedy.  Oh yeah, there's also a very robust naval bombardment.  (I'm being very circumspect to avoid spoilers.)  While the plot is wholly engaging, I found it was Mitchell's lively style which really held me tight to the page.  I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet on my Kindle and through it all, my thumbs were kept busy highlighting sentences and entire paragraphs where Mitchell fully engaged all five of the reader's senses ("Wistaria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall.  A hairy beggar kneeling by a puddle of vomit turns out to be a dog," etc.).  This novel all but comes with a Scratch-n-Sniff strip on every page.  It's the soundtrack, however, that struck me the hardest (and loudest).  Throughout the book, cicadas sing, ship timbers grunt and sigh, snow falls from a pine tree with "a flat thud," and an artisan's loom goes "tack-ratta-clack-ah, tack-ratta-clack-ah."  One section begins: "Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting."  There's poetry, overt and covert, in a sentence like that.  Put another way:  as Akira Kurosawa was to color in Ran, so David Mitchell is to sound in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

by Lindsay Hunter

In the early pages of Daddy's, Lindsay Hunter's brain-blistering collection of short stories from Featherproof Books, a restless wife who endures frequent bouts of rough sex with her husband finds pleasure in their invisible electric fence.  Each day, after the husband goes off to work, she puts their dog Marky in front of the TV to watch Animal Planet then goes out to the edge of the yard:
I wind the vinyl part of Marky’s collar around my hand, holding the plastic receiver in my palm, and then I press the cold metal stimulator against my underwear, step forward, and the jolt is delivered.  Like a million ants biting.  Like teeth.  Like the G-spot exists.  Like a tiny knife, a precise pinch.  Like fireworks.  I can’t help it—I cry out; my underwear is flooded with perfect warmth.  I lie back in the grass and see stars.
Still with me?  If that paragraph shocks and offends, then trust me when I say it's one of the tamer moments in Hunter's squirm-worthy stories.  I'm not trying to push readers away from Daddy's—quite the opposite, in fact—but I did want to make you aware this book is not for everyone.  Hunter pairs latent sadness with the seamy details of her characters' lives.  The dog-collar orgasms, the pie-eating-contest barf, the forlorn chafe of masturbation, the fat fathers who wear bras: at times, Daddy's is the literary equivalent of a John Waters movie—and you may feel like showering after each story.  But where Waters shocks for shock's sake, Hunter uses the grotesque as a gateway into the loneliness that darkens many of our lives.  She takes us where we would not normally go willingly, but even among the sordid and grimy, there are moments of startling beauty.  In here, stars twinkle "white as little baby teeth," bits of cherry pie stick to the corners of a mouth "like blood under a neon light," a mother yearning for her baby has "nipples like lit matchheads."  Hunter can get away with heightened metaphorical language like this because the entire collection is bold and fierce.  Like a bottled hot sauce you're trying for the first time, there's always that first hesitant moment before you put it on your tongue.  Make no mistake: Hunter burns; oh brother, does she burn delicious.

American Salvage
by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Here's another contemporary female short-story writer (and accomplished novelist: Once Upon a River) who kicks down the door and pushes us inside to a rough, gritty world inhabited by people who, to put it bluntly, are scraping the bottom of society's barrel.  Like Lindsay Hunter, Bonnie Jo Campbell isn't always polite and rule-abiding in her fiction, but I think that's why I'm drawn to her work.  In this collection, she took me to the rust-flecked scrap yards of rural Michigan and introduced me to some unforgettable characters (some with teeth, some without).  I know it seems I'm inordinately drawn to the mean and gritty in fiction, but I find that writers like Campbell nearly always balance despair with hope.  All the stories in this collection are top-notch, but for me the centerpiece chandelier, all a-blaze and glittering with crystals, is "The Inventor, 1972."  It's an incredibly moving and intricately-plotted story of a man who hits a teenage girl on a dark road and he discovers--well, I won't tell you what he discovers...but I will say I love how Campbell fits all the various pieces of the narrative puzzle into one emotional whole by the last sentence.  I also like the sentences which open "The Inventor, 1972."  BAM!  We're in the middle of the action from Word One:
A rusted El Camino clips the leg of the thirteen-year-old girl, sends her flying through the predawn fog.  She lands on the side of the road and lies twisted and alive in the dirty snow.  Before the pain gathers its strength, the girl sees how her leg looks wrong against the asphalt.  In slow time, she notices a hole in her new jeans, a puncture made when the jagged end of her broken fibula stabbed through and retracted.
Bonnie Jo Campbell doesn't waste any time playing patty-cake with her readers.  American Salvage can be hard, mean and brutal....and she makes no apologies for taking us there.

Why Dogs Chase Cars
by George Singleton

Singleton’s collection of linked stories featuring young Mendal Dawes of Forty-Five, South Carolina, is funny, wistful, profane, funny, charming, funny, and—above all—funny.  Mendal’s father affectionately calls his only child “Fuzznuts” and “peckerhead” and is not adverse to going to great lengths to set up an elaborate practical joke months in the making in order to teach his son a valuable lesson about his place in the world.  Mr. Dawes loves his son, but can be a vexation and embarrassment.  A jack-of-all-trades, he is also a compulsive Burier of Objects.  Their entire property is filled with mounds and holes-in-progress as the elder Dawes hoards old metal gasoline-station signs, hardware-store yardsticks, and empty barrels labeled “Toxic Waste,” the latter with an eye to the future when it could be profitable to own a patch of condemned land.  Mendal grudgingly admits his father is “maybe the only man in all of Forty-Five with the ability to look past tomorrow.”  What Mendal wants more than anything is to escape from Forty-Five, “a town best known for its ‘Widest Main Street in the World!’ and ‘Second Largest Population of Albino Squirrels!’”  It’s a place with “a gene pool so shallow that it wouldn't take a Dr. Scholl's insert to keep one’s soles dry.”  In the story “No Fear of God or Hell,” Mendal vows: “If we’d’ve had a travel agent in town, I would’ve booked a plane to Mississippi, or any of those other states where I could get lynched quickly and without notice—just so I could flat-out die without much fanfare.”  Every boy trapped in a small town believes he is not living in the real world, a place of normality that exists somewhere beyond the town limits and is surely filled with people completely devoid of eccentricities.  But, as in the best comic Southern literature like Singleton’s (and Lewis Nordan’s and T. R. Pearson’s and Eudora Welty’s and Flannery O’Connor’s), it is the weird, the off-beat, and the off-kilter which make the worlds of these stories more “real” than reality.  Through hyperbole, we approach the truth; through the weird, we find the sane; and through humor, we get down to the serious business of understanding life.

by Joseph Heller

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of the meanest, saddest, funniest, truthiest novel ever written about war: Joseph Heller's Catch-22.  For five decades, people have been alternately holding their sides and scratching their heads as they read about the World War II bomb squadron stationed on the island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean Sea.  It's not always an easy book to read.  As the best literature often demands, you have to work your way to the pleasures to be found here.  Catch-22 is a novel that flips the narrative structure of the novel on its head as sure as Yossarian is thrown upside down in his Plexiglas bombardier's compartment.  The same events are told multiple times, looping and returning to add another piece of crucial information.  Catch-22 is illogical and irrational...and that's just the way the author intended it to be.  Heller refused to play by the rules in this book, inverting expectations at nearly every turn: one minute slapstick, the next minute a hard slap of violence.  This was my second time through the novel; my first reading was started on a plane bound for the Iraq War where, as an active-duty soldier, I was preparing myself for combat by reading Catch-22 like it was an owner's manual.  It's unlike anything else I've ever read.  Slapstick on one page, horror on the next.  As I wrote earlier on the blog: "Anyone who thinks Catch-22 is merely a frivolity, a slapstick indictment, a howl at conformity, a circus of words (all of which it is), need look no further than the equally straight-faced scenes to be reminded of the bitter intent of the novel.  Joseph Heller could be spit-take funny in one paragraph, but chillingly sober in the next.  He had a point to make and he did it not only with jokes and circular repartee, but with convincing arguments for pacifism."  I love Catch-22 so much, I devoted an entire week of blog posts celebrating its acerbic, off-kilter, Borscht-Belt-y humor.  And I still don't think I exhausted everything I had to say about it. 

Mildred Pierce
by James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce opens with the peaceful scene of a man doing yard work on a hot afternoon in Glendale, California.  He goes inside, takes a bath, gets dressed, then walks to the kitchen where his wife is icing a cake.  They talk about the weather and the husband casually mentions he might take a stroll down the street since he has nothing better to do.  Suddenly, the mood turns and the wife snaps at him, blades in her voice:
     "She's waiting for you, so go on."
     "Who's waiting for me?"
     "I think you know."
     "If you're talking about Maggie Biederhof, I haven't seen her for a week, and she never did mean a thing to me except somebody to play rummy with when I had nothing else to do."
     "That's practically all the time, if you ask me."
     "I wasn't asking you."
     "What do you do with her?  Play rummy with her a while, and then unbutton that red dress she's always wearing without any brassieres under it, and flop her on the bed?  And then have yourself a nice sleep, and then get up and see if there's some cold chicken in her icebox, and then play rummy some more, and then flop her on the bed again?  Gee, that must be swell.  I can't imagine anything nicer than that."
Meet Mr. and Mrs. Pierce, Bert and Mildred.  Don't get too cozy with them, however, because they're about to split up.  In fact, in a few minutes Bert will be storming out of the house and their marriage will be kaput.  As they argue about Bert's "flopping" with Maggie B., Cain writes: "They spoke quickly, as though they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to be cooled with spit."  It's a helluva gangbusters way to open a novel.  Cain doesn't take the time to stop and give much exposition about the adultery, he just brings you right in when the marital simmer has reached a rapid boil.  From this point forward, Mildred Pierce is a fast-moving, hard-hitting account of divorce, abandonment, unemployment, suffering, and humiliation.  Cain is brutal in what he says as well as how he says it--short, direct sentences that feel like punches clipping the underside of the reader's jaw.

Madame Bovary
by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis

Before the financial ruin, before the shame, before the suffering, before the world's slowest suicide, there was the sex.  And it was good--at least in the hands of Gustave Flaubert and Lydia Davis, the most recent translator of Madame Bovary.  Flaubert's novel, published in 1856 and dragged through the courts a year later, has long titillated readers with its ripe, non-explicit sex (e.g. "the joys of the night").  But now Davis helps make Flaubert even frothier for a new generation of readers.  As with Catch-22, this was my second trip through the novel (I rarely re-read books, so this turned out to be an unusual year).  The first, about fifteen years ago, was the competent but less-sparkly Paul de Man translation in the Norton Critical Edition.  In a brief essay at Salon, Davis somewhat uncharitably sniffs that the de Man--itself a revision of the 1888 translation by Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor Marx Aveling--is the worst among the eleven translations she's read.  Perhaps it is; I only have my two versions for comparison, but in my opinion, Davis punches de Man to a TKO before the first bell has rung.  She proves, once and for all, that the work of a translator does matter.  It's not just swapping words between languages, it's investing that exchange with style and meaning.  The thing I remember most about my initial Norton Critical encounter with Emma Bovary was that she did a lot of walking.  I know Flaubert had an obsession with shoes, but come on.  Emma is on a perpetual treadmill throughout the book--that is, when she's not stretched out on her two deathbeds (the first, a false one, comes after her lover dumps her via a note hidden at the bottom of a basket of apricots and she is stricken with what she thinks is a grave illness).  But yeah, it's true, there are pages and pages of walking.  Emma hoofs it all around town, dragging the hem of her adulterous dresses through the muddy streets of Yonville, along the streambanks, across the wheat fields.  Walking, walking, walking.  You'd think she'd eventually wise up and get a bicycle or a pair of rollerblades.  But it's not Emma's Lusty Pedestrian Afternoons that I take away from the new version.  It's the striking way Davis makes Flaubert's words pop off the page.  Miniature fireworks.  Springs tight as mousetraps.  Sizzling sausages in a hot pan.  It's like we're reading a whole new book.  And in a way, we are.