Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Saturday Afternoon with John

This is mostly a gushy girl post, but books will be briefly involved.
I spent a nice little Saturday afternoon at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho with John Krasinski. Did you know that your favorite star of The Office has recently written and directed his very first movie? He has, and that movie is Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, based on the novel of the same name by author David Foster Wallace.
The reading was set for 5:00pm, but, to be honest, I got my boyfriend to call the bookstore ahead of time and find out what time I should show up to “avoid the screaming girls.” [Obviously I couldn’t call, because I am a girl and my request would not be as believable.]
My friend Kati and I arrived around 4:00 and hovered around the set-up of chairs to ensure a close spot. As we sat in our coveted 2nd row seats [because 1st row is just too close to un-awkwardly take pictures of someone standing right in front of you] and as 5:20 rolled around, we see through the storefront windows a tall, dashing man jogging down the sidewalk towards the bookstore door as pedestrians turned their heads and probably said, “Wait, wasn’t that….”

He did a reading from the book, which was very funny and introduced me to a book I knew little about. Then he did a Q&A. But he was admittedly nervous and doing that trick where you look just above the audience to avoid direct eye contact [which I understand…I mean, I was in the 2nd row and only about 6 feet away from him]. I was, therefore, determined that I WOULD make eye contact with John Krasinski and asked him [with a semi-functioning voice] if he wanted to write and direct in the future, or if it needed to be a project that was special to him. He said something about passion fueling your drive and energy for a project, so it needed to be special. But I’m gonna be honest…I was too occupied with the realization that JOHN KRASINSKI was speaking to ME for those glorious 45-60 seconds, that I can’t recall everything he said.
Then he did a signing, and because of our location and willingness to help move chairs away from the autograph table, we were right at the front of the line. So we spoke to John even more, and he wrote my name and ‘Thanks for the question!’ And I walked out of the bookstore feeling both successful and all tingly inside.
Check out the trailer for Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Or read the book!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Author Interview: Lisa Patton

In case my review yesterday didn’t get you excited for Lisa Patton’s debut novel Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, I hope this conversation with her will! Lisa is a born and bred Southerner. She grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and attended the University of Alabama [as a fellow Tennessean, I guess I can forgive her for this brief stint of loyalty to a rivalrous SEC school]. She has since found her way back to Tennessee and currently resides in Franklin, a small town just outside Nashville, where she works as the Special Events Director at the historic Carnton Plantation [one of the stops on my and my mom’s frequent historic Nashville self-tours]. Lisa and I are practically neighbors, which made me VERY excited to speak with her. 

Please join me in welcoming Lisa to the book world!

What inspired you to turn your story into a fiction novel?

I didn’t really turn my story into a novel. I was inspired by my own escapades as a southern innkeeper, but the story itself is fiction.

I hope I’m not making a major assumption, but I’m guessing that you were the inspiration for the character of Leelee. How did it feel to write a character that [seems to be!] based on yourself? Did you ever find it difficult to separate your own personality from the fictional character?

Good question and a fair assumption at least at first glance. The whole experience of inn-keeping from a southerner’s perspective is rich for storytelling. The dichotomies between the two regions are quite colorful. When my time in Vermont had run its course and I was safely back on Southern soil, I knew I had a story to tell. There was so much about Vermont that I loved but I also knew that I was better off in the South. It’s too cold for me in Vermont! But I digress. Leelee Satterfield does have a couple of the same experiences that I had, yet she is a different person than me. One of the most important things I found about creating Leelee was that she needed to have a wide character arc. She starts out as naïve and somewhat spoiled but by the end of the book, she turns into a steel magnolia. I think whenever a first-time author writes in first person about someone with a similar background to that author – and especially the same gender – it can be hard to separate the two personalities.

How long did it take you to write this book?

I came up with the idea and title fourteen years ago, but the actual writing took me about three years. That’s because it went in and out of my drawer for nearly a decade until I developed the confidence to actually finish it. Plus, as a single mother of two very active little boys I could only write in my spare time, which was pretty much non-existent!

This is your debut novel – were there any surprises in the process of getting a book from a new author published?

Oh my goodness, yes! Although I have to say I had read millions of books on the subject of publishing so I was well familiar with the odds. The biggest surprise was when my agent called me about the sale. She caught me totally off-guard. I had planned a trip to New York with two of my best girlfriends (a significant birthday celebration for all of us) and I had planned to have lunch with Holly. Truth be told I was scared she might be discouraged because the book hadn’t sold, so I wanted to meet her in person. (Heaven forbid she might drop me.) When I heard her voice on the phone I told her that I was just getting ready to call her. She asked why, and I reminded her about our lunch. She told me that she was about to make that trip to New York so much better. We had a sale!! When I learned that Thomas Dunne also wanted a sequel I was flabbergasted. That was my biggest surprise.

What did you find to be the hardest part of writing a novel?

The first draft – bar none. Oops that’s not true, it’s the alone part. I’m a classic extravert and I found it hard to be by myself while I was writing. Finally, I started going to the library to finish the book so I’d at least have people all around me.

I believe you’re working on a sequel to Whistlin’ Dixie…are you finding any major differences between writing the second book than writing the first?

Well the first major difference is that I actually kinda/sorta know what I’m doing this time around. Plus I have more confidence knowing it’s going to be published.

What has been the most enjoyable part of this new profession?

I have joy in knowing that I have shown my two sons, now 19 and 21, that hard work and dedication really do bring about success – in whatever form that may be. They were only five and seven when I first dreamed about this project and I’m happy that I have been able to show them an example of tenacity – especially since I’m a single mom.

What’s currently on your ‘to read’ list?

Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani
South of Broad by Pat Conroy
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells
Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I loved it.

I just had a chance to speak to author Jill McCorkle, another Southerner, and I asked her this question. Since you’re also a fellow Southerner, I have to ask: What is your favorite eccentricity of the South?

Hhmmm. That’s a good one. My favorite eccentricity would probably be the large number of meat and threes that we have here in the South, and the fact that no meal would ever be served from one of those restaurants without a delicious piece of cornbread to go along with it. Ohh, I just thought of one more. I love it that Southern children everywhere still say “Yes ma’am and “Yes sir.” I think that’s very respectful.

And to include those about the Mason-Dixon line, what’s your favorite eccentricity of the North?

This one’s easy. The most peculiar thing to me about the North is the fact that you can’t bury people in the winter. That’s how I start my book by saying, “No one ever told me you can’t bury somebody up North in the wintertime.” As a Southerner, it never once crossed my mind that the ground up North froze in the first place and that it would keep people from having a winter funeral.

You have ties to rivalrous SEC schools. Where do your loyalties lie on Gameday? Go Vols or Roll Tide?

My blood is a deep crimson.

And a few from the Proust Questionnarie: What is your most treasured possession?

My grandmother’s antique diamond ring. I wear it on my right hand and every time I look at it I think of her. She was born in 1882 and was a lovely Southern belle.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Without a doubt my answer to that one is singing. I’m so jealous of anyone with a gorgeous voice. Come to think of it, that’s one nice thing about alone time. You can sing your heart out and no one can hear you, no matter how bad you might sound.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Raising my sons to be kind-hearted, tender men who love God and their mama!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Keep in mind, I’m a hopeless romantic. My idea of perfect happiness would be to live in an antebellum house with a wonderful guy who has a killer sense of humor and loves me and loves my sons. There would be a beautiful view of the Southern sky out my back porch where I could watch the sun rise and set and have my animals around me all the time. We would eat Alaskan King Crab Legs and home-grown tomatoes and caramel cake and dance to 70’s music under the stars. Travelling to fun places with my friends and family would be nice. Like Hawaii, Italy, the Caribbean, and off-the-beaten-path little hideaways right here in the States.

Visit Lisa’s website at Thank you, Lisa!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Review: A Cold Corner of America

If I ever wrote a book, this would be it. I’ve asked myself before, “In creating a story, what is your thing?” What is that ‘thing’ about my life that is unique and worth telling? Well, I don’t have much. The only thing I’ve ever been able to think of is that I’m a Southerner living in the North, but I lack the creativity to make that a story. And then I found this book.

Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter is author Lisa Patton’s debut novel. A Tennessee native accustomed to long summers and brief winters, she spent three long, brutally cold winters running an inn in Vermont. And thus, a story was born.

Leelee Satterfield is happy with her life in Memphis. She’s got her family, her four best friends, her husband she’s loved since the tenth grade, and their two beautiful daughters. When her husband Baker gets a little antsy, he is inspired to buy a Vermont inn and haul the family North to run the bed-and-breakfast. And Leelee agrees…only because she has been love with him forever. But things don’t go as smoothly as Leelee hopes and not only is her relationship on the rocks, Vermont is COLD. When Baker picks up and leaves Leelee with the inn, she must try to make the best of her misery and prove she’s not just a helpless Southern belle.

I swear Lisa Patton was reading my mind as she wrote this. Either that or we think eerily alike. Our shared bitter hatred of the cold is one thing, but she goes into such detail on the tiny nuances that are so defining of me and my life up here. Like:

  • “Memphis is my home. It always will be no matter where I live.”
  • “I know people say the summer is sweltering, but it never bothers me.”
  • Vermont = “a foreign corner of American” that is “sooo Yankeeish”
  • “When I took my first sip, I could tell right away that it was Pepsi. I hate Pepsi.”
  • “…Northerners believe that anywhere with less than one million people is only a town.” [We don’t do ‘towns’ in the South.]
  • “Barbecue to Northerners meant ‘grilling out’ so if I wanted a barbecue sandwich I might as well set my tastebuds on a hamburger.” [The word ‘barbecue’: North = verb, South = food.]

Not to mention references to Corky’s barbecue, Johnny Majors and Neyland Stadium, Mother’s Day Out, and First Tennessee Bank—those little familiarities that you forget don’t exist everywhere.

Needless to say, I loved this book. A well-developed main character that grew as the plot progressed, an entertaining ensemble of supporting characters, and a pleasing but not lame ending. I may be a little biased for this book for all the reasons mentioned above, but I still think it’d be an enjoyable (and hilarious) read for people anywhere in the country (or outside of it!).

Thomas Dunne Books
320 Pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-312-55660-0

Review copy provided by publisher (Thomas Dunne).

This is the first stop for me on the Literary Road Trip, hosted @ Galleysmith. I claimed my great home state of Tennessee. You may be saying, “But don’t all of you live in New York?” and the answer is yes. But New York was already claimed by about four other people, and Tennessee was not. And as mentioned earlier, Tennessee will always be my home, no matter where else I live.

Tune in tomorrow for an interview with Lisa Patton, author of
Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Movie Review: Pride & Prejudice

The New York Public Library did not want me to finish this movie. I watched half; the library wouldn’t let me renew; it took three weeks to get the DVD again, but I finally did it. Ha, library. I win!

I’ve always heard that the BBC miniseries is the version to watch of Pride & Prejudice. Colin Firth, and particularly his white shirt scene, seems to have become a part of Austenite pop culture. Anyone who swoons over fictional 19th century English men sings praises of this movie, particularly Bridget Jones (I’ll save my commentary on the intentionally ironic casting of Colin Firth as Mark Darcy for another time). 
In high school, I was capable of watching all three CBC Anne of Green Gables movies in a row. And I did…a few times. That’s about 10 hours. My attention span has drastically decreased since then. Somewhere in the transition to college and the real world, I gained the ability to fall asleep whenever I sit still, and watching movies, particularly 5-hour-long miniseries, got a bit harder. I thought it would take me days to finish this, but I got so into it that I finished it after only two viewing sessions. Thoughts:
  • Jennifer Ehle (Lizzy) looks eerily like Meryl Streep in this movie. Also, she is apparently an American. Kudos!
  • Whoever played Mrs. Bennett was fantastic, because she annoyed the hell out of me.
  • I loved how Mr. Bennett had perfect comedic timing. He is the reason I believe Austen’s wit is much better illustrated on screen than on the page.
  • The angry daughter (Mary) was hilarious. She just looked so miserable!
  • I was so excited to see Saffy from AbFab fame as the youngest Bennett daughter, Lydia. She cracked me up in the first half, and then her character got really obnoxious.
  • I definitely already knew how Wickham and Darcy’s relationship would pan out. Gee thanks Bridget Jones, for ripping off that plot line!
  • Like in Sense & Sensibility, the openness of personal income astounds me.
  • I enjoy Austen’s strong female leads that rebel against society’s norms.
  • I need to visit English countryside.
I think I could watch this again and again. Especially on cold winter days or the rainy spring ones when you don’t feel guilty about staying inside.  Call me crazy, but I don’t see how the newer Keira Knightley version could compare.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Review: The inked american dream

Just finished Michael Chabon’s pulitzer prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book that came highly recommended by several sources – and hell, it lived up to the hype.

The first thing I noticed is the style of writing – there’s a particular style I notice that I appreciate, when every single tangible object has a long, winding history to it. If it’s in the book, you know all about it, where it came from, who created it, why they created it, and then eventually you come to understand how it fell like a puzzle piece into its place in the plot. I love this, and I have a deep appreciation for what it takes to be this meticulous about crafting a novel that fills in as much reality as possible.

The second thing I realized is that the novel is a tale about two things I love: Brotherhood and That Ol’ American Dream. The two main characters are cousins in this case, and have somewhat inevitably complementary personalities and skills, which they combine into one incredible talent – writing comic books (cue American Dream).

I think it would have been very easy to write a decent novel with those two ingredients alone. However, Chabon adds a startling series of complexities to each character and each event that ground the entire thing into something resembling reality (like the fact that it all happens during World War II and one of the two main Jewish protagonists barely escaped Prague with his life, leaving behind his entire family which of course created a huge “Man, I’d love to enjoy the incredible life I’m leading but I just can’t do it knowing that my family is stuck back there” complex).

The final success of the whole thing is that it’s a novel about comic book writers…and the whole thing is entirely reminiscent of a comic book – having just put it down, I wouldn’t be surprised to open it again and find pages of colorful panels and exultant faces with exuberant speech bubbles. It’s perhaps this quality that makes it so easy to love – I wanted to be best friends with perhaps every single character in the book, and yet never felt like it was too easy on itself or strayed into dull cliche. Sometimes things happen or victories are won a little bit too easily but hey – this is America, after all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: The times, they are a-changin’

After hearing a half-hour segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation (the radio show that gets me through the work week!) featuring Carlotta Walls LaNier of the Little Rock Nine, I was inspired to pick up her memoir at the library—A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.

As a bit of a history lesson, the Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education. When the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, was forced to integrate in 1957, Carlotta was the youngest of nine African-American students—known as the Little Rock Nine—that enrolled in the all-white Central High School. The ensuing crisis that eventually led to intervention by President Eisenhower and the 101st Airborne can be considered one of the most important events in the Civil Rights Movement.
U.S. History 101 tells you the story of the Little Rock Nine, but LaNier’s memoir gives a perspective rarely seen. When an event becomes such a defining point of the historical record and when it seems so far in the past that it is hard to relate to, these events seem to just stick on the page of a history book. They don’t come alive. We forget that real people went through this, that real emotions were felt and that people’s lives were immediately affected by the stories we hear and read. LaNier details the day-to-day excitement, anxiety, and fear that defined her three years at Central. We see her mind develop as she processes the events surrounding her. We get a glimpse into the ordinary life of someone who turned out to be such an extraordinary icon in American history. We get a personal account of a story that is usually told in such an impersonal manner.

Sometimes in a memoir, the author will ramble on about day-to-day events that seem so inconsequential. And for most people, they are. They’re boring and have no relevance to anything. But in this book, the mundane is important, because it just builds up the tension of the whole story. Not once did I think that LaNier was rambling. Nor would I criticize her for being self-promoting as many memoir authors in her position are. Instead, I am glad to have gotten a glimpse into an event that otherwise seems so distant.
*Note: I’m sure most people (should) recognize the above picture from the Little Rock Crisis. But is it just me or do these high school students look about 45-years-old?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review: I had a farm in Africa

JM Coetzee’s latest work of fiction, Summertime, seems like it rounds out his fictionalised autobiography project – or what the author might call his autrebiography project. Starting with Boyhood, which was followed by Youth, Coetzee has re-imagined a life story of a South African writer named John Coetzee who grew up in the Karoo, had trouble with being both English and an Afrikaner, wrote some esoteric fiction, won the Nobel Prize, and in short – and what seems to interest the characters of this fiction most intense- and intently – was always a man who basically could not grow to be with someone. Summertime imagines: What if this Coetzee were already dead? If a young English biographer wanted to know more about him from the men and women who were ‘close’ to him in life, what would they say? Who was John Coetzee?

The response is the immensely powerful, sepulchral, and biting dialogues that comprise this novel. Like a plainsong of voices over the veld, four women and one man rise to the challenge of biographer Mr Vincent’s soft, but antagonizing questions of their relations with this Coetzee character, a man who Vincent himself has never met, who suspiciously reminded me of V in Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight – another novel with pseudo-biographical/character representation interest.

But this ‘plainsong’ is anything but peaceful. Beginning with diary entries, which we soon realise are in fact Coetzee’s, but written in the third-person, the narrative starts with a vicious burning of a home in South Africa, where the villains are painted in blackface, speaking Afrikaans to one another. Then with each of the speakers interviewed by Vincent we understand a huge sense of dissatisfaction, disappointment, and dysfunction with John Coetzee. Each packs a heavier punch than the last at the author. In the first interview session, the early lover Julia makes a profound statement after she shockingly tells Vincent about mislaid intercourse plans John came up with, which involved listening to a Schubert quartet in order to understand what it was like to live in Napoléonic Europe. Julia obviously thinks this a bad idea and stops the sex, eventually throwing a plate at young John.

Because who but a total dummy would order the woman he is supposed to be in love with to take lessons in lovemaking from some dead composer, some Viennese Bagatellenmeister? When a man and a woman are in love they create their own music, it comes instinctively, they don’t need lessons. But what does our friend John do? He drags a third presence into the bedroom. Franz Schubert becomes number one, the master of love; John becomes number two, the master’s disciple; and I become number three, the instrument on whom the sex-music is going to be played. That – it seems to me – tells you all you need to know about John Coetzee. The man who mistook his mistress for a violin. . . . Who was so dumb, so cut off from reality, that he could not distinguish between playing on a woman and loving a woman.

Compare that statement with one in Disgrace where David Lurie, the protagonist, at the end of the novel realises that he’s not Lord Byron or his inamorata in the opera Lurie’s creating, but rather he’s the music, he’s the plink-plunk of the strings. There is something about being this voiceless interlocutor, the music between people rather than the people themselves, that pervades Coetzee’s fiction. And that is where we find him to be the most tender, when we hear about the tenuous bridges that his characters are trying to cross: ‘I am interested in the things we have lost, not the things we have kept. . . . [Why learn Hottentot?] The dead. You can speak with the dead. Who otherwise are cast out into everlasting silence.’ There is something tender there, through the ridiculousness, through the moroseness. In its bluntness, in its honesty, it is folly but it is also treasure, treasure of human consciousness.
Coetzee’s fictional project has recently to be barebones, to be naked and vulnerable – like a mollusc without its shell (another Disgrace image) – but without calling attention to it. Confession and disgrace, identity and shame all play heavy roles and continue to do so within this novel/autobiography. This work of fiction is perhaps one that ties the room together better than any of his former, and one that shows off his ability to capture five distinct voices with five distinct rhythms.

Available December 28, 2009
Or the Harvill Secker/Random House UK edition, here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The “Back to School” Reading Challenge!

The “Back to School” challenge has been underway for a couple of weeks, and I hope everyone is getting off to a good start (or has at least decided on a reading list!). Use the Mr. Linky below to link to your reading challenge posts, so we can all follow along with your reviews.

And hey, it’s not to late to sign up! Just visit the original post to read the rules. You can sign up with the Mr. Linky below, and be sure to come back to link to your challenge posts. This challenge lasts until December 31, 2009, so you’ve got plenty of time!

As for my own reading list…I’d had several in mind as I created this challenge, but I think I’m going to just have to narrow it down as I go. I haven’t decided for sure which ones I’ll end up choosing, but they’ll be from this list:
  1. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  2. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  4. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  6. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
The only one I haven’t read is Grapes of Wrath, but I can’t say I remember a whole lot about the others since I read them all when I was 16 or younger.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

BBAW: Books I Will Never Read

Today’s post prompt for BBAW asks something along the lines of: What book have you been inspired to pick up after reading about it on a book blog? Well, I’ve added many books to my ‘to read’ list after reading reviews from other book bloggers; that’s my favorite part about book blogs! But I can’t think of any specific one I’ve actually gotten around to reading that stands out as deserving of this post.

However, there are SEVERAL books I am inspired to never ever read thanks to the reviews or comments by bloggers, and I’ve been thinking more about those lately. So I am answering this question with a twist, because that’s just how I roll. And I think it’s more fun!

New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn — My 28-year-old Twilight-fan of a boss lent this to me for an upcoming weekend roadtrip, insisting it was a good read. I wasn’t particularly excited about reading it, but I like to read the really popular things to find out what all the fuss is about. Also, I often possess an unnatural affection towards teen and tween-geared entertainment (ie: High School Musical), so I tried to read with an open mind (though I refused to read it on public transportation or in front of strangers who could judge me). It was a good quick roadtrip read, but holy god, BARF. Bella is an annoyingly weak character, and Meyer’s reinvented vampires are ridiculous (sparkle? Really?). After reading on a blog that the later books in the series involve crazy sex, parasitic fetuses, and vampire abortions, I just laughed and said, “Of course they do.” And I’m sure her tween audience ate that shit up. I know I would find these books absolutely terrible, but I’m unsure as to which is worse: these books or their movie versions with the two most boring, brooding actors on the face of the Earth. Just consider me a Buffy girl for life.
Catching Fire — The week this came out, I pretty much just marked everything in my Google Reader as “read.” EVERYONE seemed to review this, which made for really boring blog reading. Also, it made me so sick of the damn cover art. I’m sure it’s great and all and I realize that I am not giving it a fair chance, but overexposure turned me off. I refuse to read on principle.

J.M. Coetzee — Jackie @ Farmlane Books reviewed Coetzee’s Summertime. It was a great review, but I have a history with Coetzee, one that is not pretty. During my Sophomore year of college, my friends seemed to go through a Coetzee phase, and I tried to hop on board. Mostly I tried to hop on board with the ulterior motive of impressing my now-boyfriend (yes, books were my means to an end), and I tried to like Coetzee so we could have inspiring literary discussions. But I can’t like him. He looks like a very nice man, and I know he deserves a great deal of literary merit, but he bores me to DEATH. Jackie’s review just released all those pent-up feelings about Coetzee and reminded me I should never read him again. You got me, Coetzee. I give up!
Any books you just can’t wait to never pick up?

Back to School: A sunny day at the gulag

This ‘Back to School’ challenge is a great way to return to certain literature I’ve always wanted to read, even bought, but just could get into. It’s a perfect excuse to invest time into more classics (some contemporary), to be more aware of the modern book conversation.

I had bought One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich last year when the author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had died. Solzhenitsyn, a Russian with a great big bushy beard, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, although didn’t collect until four years later after he was deported from the Soviet Union. (The USSR wouldn’t allow him to go to Stockholm to be pick up the diploma; the Swedes wouldn’t schlep through the Nordic seas award him in Moscow.) One Day in the Life… is perhaps the author’s best known work, a short novel about a particularly ‘pleasant’ day in a Siberian gulag during the Stalinist regime, told in bareboned prose on sad yet amusing scenes.
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov has been imprisoned for espionage against fellow comrades. Unfortunately for Shukhov, that isn’t true: Back in 1941, he escaped a German prisoner of war camp, fell into fellow Soviet hands, but said Soviets immediately believed that he really was working for the Germans. So a ten year sentence in Siberia was in order. Every day he has to worry about the men barking orders at him, the other prisoners if they will misbehave and get everyone else in trouble, the weather that is so cold everything freezes except for blood. A trip to the ‘box’, a solitary confinement chamber, may be a ten-day sentence, but the result is tuberculosis and ill-health for the rest of your days. You might as well adopt death instead.
Very few things happen in this story, and the way the narrator tells it you feel almost removed from the situation entirely. As if this were some sort of sterile experiment. Shukhov wakes up, fails to qualify for sick bay (due to the two person quota already reached), takes his hat off before eating ‘soup’, lays some bricks more precisely than the others, makes a couple of ‘rude’ comments, and goes to sleep somewhat happily. The narrator isn’t interested in building suspense, in embellishing detail. He’s just there to document. This is how it was, and this is how it will be tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.
We don’t find out that Shuhkov is Ivan Denisovich until 25 pages in, when someone formally calls him by name and patronymic, unlike everyone else (including the narrator). And although Ivan Denisovich is a bricklayer by trade and perhaps has gone a bit atavistic and doesn’t think about the family he left behind since there’s no use in doing so, there is a sensitive and beautiful side to him, shown in perhaps my favourite section of the book, the only one in this whitewashed world of Siberia where beauty and sarcasm simultaneously permeate the page:

The captain spat in disgust. “I never met a sailor as stupid as you. Where do you think the old moon goes, then? . . . Go on, tell me.”
Shuhov sighed and delivered his reply with a slight lisp. “Where I come from, they used to say God breaks up the old moon to make stars.”
The captain laughed. “What savages! I never heard anything like it! So you believe in God, do you, Shukhov?”
Now Shukhov was surprised. “Of course I do. How can anybody not believe in God when it thunders?”
“Why does God do it, then? . . . Break up the stars. Why, do you think?”
“That’s an easy one,” Shukhov said with a shrug. “Stars fall every now and then, the holes have to be filled up.”

While reading, One Day in the Life was a bit hard to swallow. But thinking about it after completing it, the drudgery resonates soundly, like a rustle in the woods. Perhaps not the most enjoyable read, but one that makes you consider what life would mean when you can only have 200 grams of bread a day.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review: Perchance to dream

I want to apologize for titling my review with a Shakespeare quote—allow me the brief guilty pleasure. I always wonder how I would react to a book if I had read it at a different time. I usually promise to a read a book again—especially if a season plays an important role in a novel—but with all of the literature in print I rarely follow through. And even tougher are the promises to read stories later in life. After spending a weekend with Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, I know I should read this again in 20 years because it will make a lot more sense. I hope I follow through because this is a great book that will only get better.

Frank Bascombe is a dreamer. He tells his life story over the course of a somewhat eventful Easter weekend. Beginning on a quiet Friday morning, Frank approaches the gravestone of his deceased son. He waits for his ex-wife who shares this yearly ritual with him. From this moment until Sunday evening, Frank drifts between reality and daydream recalling most of the formative moments from his life.

Ford weaves dreams into the narrative so effortlessly that one often forgets what the original time period is. The majority of the story involves little of the present. Instead we witness the vivid memories in Frank’s mind. More importantly, we understand that what exists in the present seems to be of little concern to our narrator. Perhaps that is the chief cause of his downfall.

I read this after having read its Pulitzer prize-winning sequel Independence Day last year. I can’t remember much of a difference between the two—besides the obvious plot changes—but Ford’s storytelling remained true between both books. Despite reading them out of order, I can certainly say the two exist as one piece. There is a third story out there, but I’ve yet to read that one; if anyone has I would love to hear some opinions.

The language and craft existed on the page, but I never had a connection with the characters. I know full well that at 40 years I will understand Frank’s plight, but at present I just couldn’t connect with him or any other character. But that shouldn’t deter people from reading this wonderfully potent novel. If you are middle-aged (or an old soul) make sure to pick up The Sportswriter and Independence Day.

A side note: I was suggested Independence Day during a search for road novels as I was about to embark on a cross-country trip. Though I think the novel never fulfilled my expectations of a road story (e.g. On the Road) it did travel along a winding path through the narrator’s thoughts. What are your expectations for a road novel? And what are some interesting variations of “the road novel” that you’ve read? We’d all probably be better to ignore novels with the word “road” already in the title.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

BBAW: Meet Heather!

So this is definitely my favorite part of Book Blogger Appreciate Week thus far, because I get to talk to another book blogger about something besides books. Sure, we all share that interest, but we have GOT to have a life outside of books. Some may say “you lie!” but I assure you it is true.

I was very glad to meet and speak to Heather of A High and Hidden Place: Tales of a Capricious Reader. She’s a southerner (like me!) from North Carolina. In college, she was an English major with a minor in History. Though she’s barely in her thirties, has been married for nine years, and has a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, she refuses to grow up and is on a YA reading kick. I’m so glad to find someone eight years my senior that still refuses to grow up…I was starting to wonder if I’m going to have to give in at some point and stop watching Harriet the Spy and The Goonies every month.
We decided to go with some off-the-wall questions for our interview, because 1) they’re more fun and 2) we talk about books enough as it is!
1. Describe yourself in a sentence.

It’s complicated.

2. Top three pet peeves…GO!

1.) Turning down pages in a book to save your place. That is what they make BOOKMARKS and receipts for.
2.) Broken crayons.
3.) White text on a black background. Headache waiting to happen.

3. Who’s on the top of your list for a dinner date?

Audrey Niffenegger at the moment. I would love to talk to her about HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY.

4. Do you have any quirky preferences of one thing over another? (ie: you’ll only eat chunky peanut butter)

I like the pumpkin candy corn better than the corn candy corn.

5. What is your favorite language other than your native one?

French. Je pense que le Français est magnifique. And I am amazed that, after checking babelfish, that I had that sentence just about right! Go me!

6. Do you have any bad habits?

I have terrible posture and I pick at my toenails. Gross!

7. Your token “funny story”…tell it!

Well, when I was ten I was bitten by a snake in my backyard. I bet you are thinking, that’s not funny! It really wasn’t that bad, if you don’t count the tears, my cries of “am I going to die!” and my grandma hollering at my grandpa to “Bring the da** hoe!” but it was. My uncle’s stepdad was there. As a Vietnam Vet, he said he knew how to suck the poison out. I told him to stay away from my foot. My uncle left so fast, he left my aunt behind. And in Sunday School that morning, we had gone over the part of the bible where it says that the serpent shall bite the heel of woman (paraphrasing), which in hindsight, was pretty darn funny!

8. Are you a morning or night person?

I am totally a night person.

9. Guilty pleasure(s)?

Reading, because I usually read at home and well, sometimes the chores don’t get done.

10. What’s your dream job? What’s your real job?

To work in a nice, small, cozy used bookstore, surrounded by the smell of old paper, the rustle of words on pages, and the dark, musty, organic feel of it all.

My real job is a production client operator for a large document copy. It’s kinda boring, but the pay is good.

11. What’s your favorite tradition (in your life)?

Every Saturday, my aunt, my son and I go to the Farmer’s Market. It’s fun and it’s nice to get to spend the time with my aunt, who is practically a mother to me.

12. Coke or Pepsi?

Dude. Coke.

13. Favorite genre of tv/movie to watch?

Romantic comedies and action/adventure.

14. Obligatory book question: what book would you like to be a character in?

The Princess Bride. It’s my absolute, most FAVORITE book.

15. Most important, what are some of your interests OUTSIDE of books?

Outside of books, I love to cook, knit (although I don’t get to do that a lot, no time!), work with graphic things like making photocards, taking pictures, and playing with my babies.

Go check out Heather’s awesome recently self-hosted blog, and be sure to check out her interview with me!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Author Interview: Jill McCorkle

For my very first author interview, I had the pleasuring of speaking to one of my very favorite authors! My co-worker/friend/surrogate-work-mother introduced me to Jill McCorkle back when I worked at the public library in high school, and I immediately fell in love with her southern voice. 

Jill is a North Carolina native and attended the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill where she graduated with a B.A. in Creative Writing. At age twenty-six, Jill published her first two novels simultaneously. Since then, she’s published three other novels and four short story collections. Her fiction has been selected several times by The New York Times Book Review for its ‘Notable Books of the Year’ list. Her most recent collection of stories, Going Away Shoes, has just been released by Algonquin Press, along with a re-release of her 1990 novel, Ferris Beach. [Be sure to check out my review of Going Away Shoes!]
I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Jill at BEA back in May, and I am beyond thrilled that I got to speak with her in more detail!
If you had to give a one sentence description of yourself and your writing, what would it be?

I like to think of myself and my work as balanced, an attempt to keep an eye on both the serious and the funny- learning the sources of both joy and heartbreak in a character’s life.

How would you describe your writing process? What comes first?

I often begin with a character’s voice and the story rolls out from that. Occasionally I begin with an image which was the case with the story “Intervention”- I had in mind the ending, a woman willingly buckling in beside someone who should not be driving; then the writing of the story was an attempt to understand why she would do this.

Your writing has been labeled Southern Fiction, and you’ve been inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers. How big of a role does your Southern heritage play in your writing?

My Southern roots play a big role in my writing primarily because I can’t escape what I bring to the page. The big chunk of truth that finds its way into my work is a strong sense of place. My fictional landscape is southern, even more specific it is southeastern North Carolina. Certainly there is a strong southern literary heritage and I am proud to be a part of it. I think the danger in any kind of label is when it suggests that you might only be of interest to others of that region.

What is your favorite eccentricity of the South? [For example, I’ve been credited as having an unusual penchant for fountain Coke. People just don’t appreciate that in the north!]

The “fountain coke” is a good one. That would be my mom’s choice. I don’t think that food choice is necessarily eccentric but I did miss so much while living in New England. I was surprised when I couldn’t just walk into a grocery store and buy pimento cheese or a package of country ham . Or fried okra in a restaurant. Iced tea any time of year. And field peas! I have a pot cooking right now with a big piece of country ham thrown in. I love that people- perfect strangers- will tell you whole long stories while waiting in line and no one finds this unusual at all. In fact some of the best conversations often happen in public places with people you don’t know at all and may never see again.

You were first published at age 26! How do you think your writing has changed since then?

I think that my writing has gotten darker in certain ways. Certainly the potential was always there but I think in the early years I was not as brave about seeking it out and attempting to put it into words. I felt protected by humor and often didn’t explore a character as fully as I might now.

What has been your favorite character/voice to write?

I often write what I think of as monologues- a first person voice that just takes off and rambles. These are usually fun to do and the revision is all about reeling them in a little and trying to give some shape to whatever story has been told. But I guess I think of this as different from a favorite character. Some of my favorites are Lena Carter in my novel Tending to Virginia. Tom Lowe and Quee Purdy in Carolina Moon. In the new collection, I would name the grandmother in “Surrender” and Marilyn in “Intervention”.

You’ve been praised for both your novels and your short stories. Do you prefer writing one over the other?

I love both the novel and the short story. I began with novels but was always trying and wanting to write stories. I love working on stories- the compactness- the revision process but it’s also a wonderful feeling to be caught right in the middle of a novel in progress.

What is your goal as a writer?

My goal as a writer is to make sense of a life or lives, to come to a place of understanding and truth.

What do you consider the most enjoyable aspect of your profession?

I simply love the process. I love the time I spend thinking about a story, wondering how all the pieces fit together.

Are you currently working on anything new?

I am working on a novel and of course always have story ideas in hand. I take a lot of notes.

Who are your favorite writers as of late? Of all time?

I just finished reading Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and those stories left me completely in awe- I can’t stop thinking about them. I have also been rereading Katherine Anne Porter’s stories. She is an old favorite and a writer I turn back to often as I do to Welty, Flannery O’Connor, McCullers, Capote and Tennessee Williams. Now there’s a southern lineup.

What’s currently on your ‘to read’ list?

I am currently reading Richard Russo’s new novel That Old Cape Magic and loving it. On deck the Updike collection that was just published “My Father’s Tears” and other stories, and I’m looking forward to the new collections by both Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I love to garden, take long walks and fish. My husband and I have goats and dogs and a donkey so I spend a lot of time outdoors with the animals.

When was the moment when you said to yourself, “Hey, I’m a writer!”?

I have always loved to write and did so in childhood. I think, though, it really occurred to me in college that maybe this was something i could actually DO as an adult.

Jill’s published works include:
  • The Cheer Leader (1984)
  • July 7th (1985)
  • Tending to Virginia (1987)
  • Ferris Beach (1990)
  • Crash Diet: Stories (1992)
  • Carolina Moon (1997)
  • Final Vinyl Days (1998)
  • Creatures of Habit (2001)
  • Going Away Shoes (2009)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review: The fiery furnace of fiction

Flannery O’Connor’s masterful collection of stories A Good Man Is Hard to Find immediately forces you to understand why the author is regarded as a master of short fiction. From the eponymous first tale any of those that follow it, the reader is aware that he is in good hands, that the author has us on a lead as we watch bromidic characters reveal their festering and inherent nastiness within. Every story is uncannily memorable, as if sui generis of description and form. And it certainly didn’t hurt that I read the Brad Gooch biography before attempting this book. Even though I was anticipating plot twists, everything felt anew.

O’Connor’s characters bring to mind the concept of Edith Wharton’s granite outcroppings detailed in Ethan Frome. I don’t want to use the word ‘grotesque’ here, as every other person who describes O’Connor’s work seems to do; but there is something misshapen about these people – not even just physically or mentally. Since all of these stories have a Christian and yet nihilistic them and tone about them, it’s only fair to have the characters mimic such sentiments, having hunched backs and wooden legs, obstreperous dialogues and plump names.
In ‘A Temple Is a Holy Ghost’, O’Connor’s descriptions are able to mimic the actions of the scene (much like the finale to ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’, which I won’t go into because it is wildly shocking to endure). For example:

[Their mother] asked them why they called each other Temple One and Temple Two and this sent them off into gales of giggles. Finally they managed to explain. Sister Perpetua, the oldest nun at the Sisters of Mercy in Mayville, had given them a lecture on what to do if a young man should–here they laughed so hard they were not able to go on without going back to the beginning–on what to do if a young man should–they put their heads in their laps–on what to do if–they finally managed to shout it out–if he should “behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.” Sister Perpetua said they were to say, “Stop sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” and that would put an end to it.

‘The Artificial Nigger’ is a gritty story about a grandfather and grandson, the latter so proud that he was born of the city and is returning for the ‘second time’ (the first being his birth); but when they get there both realise that they’re not as cosmopolitan as they think. And when the boy gets into a bit of trouble, the grandfather, like Peter, denies his grandson.
My particular favourite story was ‘The River’, which perhaps gets shadowed only because it follows ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’, and it’s pretty difficult to turn the page and get interested in a new tale after you read the sharp ending and the violent conclusion to the first story. But ‘The River’ follows more in the veins of James Joyce’s ‘Araby’. It’s about a young boy who is sent to spend the day with a babysitter as his father is evidently incapable of dealing with his own child and his mother is in the next room bedridden with some terrible ailment. This babysitter is an older woman with children of her own and is obsessed with the Christian religion. She decides that she’s taking the boy with her to see this preacher, so that he can be baptised and saved from damnation. Some quite hysterical bits occur, but what makes this so heartwrenching is when the boy returns to the river where the preacher was in order to see if he can see Jesus within. He starts to drink and drown himself in the water, hoping that just a bit of heaven can be inside him. And as the bazaar in ‘Araby’ destroys the boy’s dreams, so does this bit of rolling water.
What I found absolutely fascinating about this book was the fact that identity – especially self-naming – was so fluid. People interchanged their names: one woman decides to be Hulga after she thinks herself too deformed to be named Joy any longer; the young boy in ‘The River’ deceives his babysitter and claims his name is Bevel, like the preacher they’re seeing; men and women are referred to as Mr. This or Mrs. That which kept them always at arm’s length. Which seems to contradict the purpose of these stories, which bring you so close to the prejudices and cores of these characters that you feel like you’ve known them forever.
A deserved classic. One that should be cherished.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ruminations: The Man Booker Prize and the art of scowling

Authors usually have a sense of humour, but one would never know it based upon their author photo. Always contemplative – as if they’re contorted with the burdens of humankind, as if they’re Atlas carrying the Earth – they like to effect that they’re smarter than you, and you shouldn’t challenge that. And such effect is mastered in the art of the scowl. There’s probably an MFA course in attaining such looks.

The Man Booker Prize judging committee – normally a rewarder of moderation and mediocrity, except when the author I want to win in fact takes home the prize – released its shortlist of books earlier this week. The Guardian responded by making the books sound like horses in the Kentucky Derby here. There were some surprises and some disappointments, although all the characters needed to make this an interesting ‘race’ are there: Heavy hitters JM Coetzee and AS Byatt are up against popular favourites Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters. Plus, there’s the backlash from people spiteful that Colm Tóibín failed to make the shortlist. (In my humble opinion, his novel Brooklyn didn’t even deserve to make the longlist. I personally couldn’t finish it.)

So in honour of the shortlist, I’ve compiled some amusing, scowling author photos of those still ‘battling’ it out:

AS Byatt wants to be the grandmother next door, but you know she’s got a biting, split tongue. Finding a picture of her not smiling was difficult, so it’s obvious that she stifled those angry photos long ago. To gossip, she and her sister Margaret Drabble haven’t spoken in decades, and neither will say why. Byatt won the Man Booker Prize back in 1990 for Possession, which was made into a film by that name a couple years back with the abominable Gwyneth Paltrow. The Children’s Book, her novel up for the award about a fictional famous children’s author, sounds intresting, but it’s as long as the Bible. I read her Little Black Book of Stories earlier this year and was enchanted though.

JM Coetzee is my personal favourite author, and Summertime rounds out his series of fictional autobiographies, or what he would call autrebiographies. Since he’s adverse to interviews (there’s a great one of him from Dutch television [scroll to the bottom] where you can quickly understand why he doesn’t grant question-and-answer sessions, and why people probably won’t ever ask him again), people therefore create the personality of this author to what they want to believe it is: reclusive, perhaps slightly lustful although removed from society, reticent. But his work is just too powerful even to ponder about the life of this author. Coetzee was the first author to win the Booker twice, with Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999). He is a Nobel Laureate (2003).

Adam Foulds looks too young to be placed next to Coetzee and Byatt. Apparently he’s also a poet, which inherently gives him a reason to be unhappy – small advances and few royalties. Foulds went to St Catherine’s College, Oxford (a peeve of mine when at St Edmund Hall) and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, where Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, both Booker winners, attended. I might actually enjoy his nominated book, The Quickening Maze, as long as madness isn’t a crutch.
Hilary Mantel seems like an intense, lugubrious one. Her scowl in this shot is piercing. I can’t say I’ve read her novels or heard of her (now she’ll want to decapitate me – apparently she wrote a New York Review of Books article praising Coetzee’s Bach-like novel Diary of a Bad Year), even though she’s a CBE. Wolf Hall imagines Thomas Cromwell of the Henry VIII court. Chances are low that she’ll make the crossover to the other side of the pond if she doesn’t win, although I could be wrong since it’s probably a literary version of the Tudors (meaning artful, not less, sex). Lucky for her she’s the bookies’ favourite.

Sarah Waters has been on the shortlist before. In her feminist/hipster garb, we might have the best scowl/don’t mess me with me subtle rictus of all. The Night Watch, 2006’s nominee, gave Waters international acclaim and a large group of readers. Her new nominated book, The Little Stranger, sounds like an English literary version of Stephen King: haunted houses, class systems, post-WWII nerves. By the look of her she’d probably make a riotous acceptance speech. Nothing so soft as Aravind Adiga’s last year.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any current photos of Simon Mawer that are angry at the world. So I went with this classic one, which looks like it’s straight out of the 60s or 70s – the good guy author shot. He looks too charming here, which is why he gets mentioned last. How am I supposed to trust an author like him to dive into the annals of the minds and actions of humankind? Charm and good looks certainly don’t do that. However, The Guardian commentators did mention that The Glass Room is the most Modernist novel out of the six, and its jacket is something beautiful. So I’d probably thoroughly enjoy this story of Judaism and Czechoslovakia before WWII.
The Man Booker will be announced with all its decorum in London 6 October. The winner will enjoy a surge in retail sales throughout the world and will certainly make the New York Times bestseller fiction list.

Do you have a preferred scowl of the gentlemen and ladies shown above?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Review: A West Village Fairy Tale

I’ve been struggling to write a review for Marjorie Kernan’s The Ballad of West Tenth Street. I keep thinking that I will be inspired, that something will come to me, the longer I wait to write this. But three days after finishing it and I still can’t think of what to say. I liked it. But now I have to figure out why. 

I’ll start with a synopsis. A West Village brownstone is occupied by the Hollanders. Sadie, the mother, is the widow of a rock star, has a bit of a drinking problem, but is also really close to her children. The children are three: Gretchen, Deen, and Hamish. Gretchen is twenty-one and the only one of the children that is old enough to have had a relationship with their dead father, Ree. She’s a pro on the drums but has quit playing, stopped talking, and, after a self-cutting spree, has landed herself upstate in a looney bin. Deen is fourteen and on her way to becoming a classical pianist. Hamish is eleven and on his way to becoming a gourmet chef (or at least a good enough cook to feed the family). 
There are many interesting characters outside of the Hollander family that make this a “contemporary fairy tale”: uncle Brian, Ree’s ex-band-mate that has lusted over Sadie for a dozen or so years; a rich Southerner called the Colonel that moved in next door; the Colonel’s Guatemalan housekeeper and his resourceful decorator; a non-union handyman; an eccentric musical genius; and Cap’n Meat, a bum that keeps a pet cat and has befriended the children.
So how is this book an “urban fairy tale” you may ask? Excellent question. The characters are divided into two groups: good and bad. Every subplot has a villain, and we find ourselves supporting the good guys no matter what. So Sadie drinks too much…we still like her better than that godawful wife of Deen’s piano teacher. Kernan paints New York as a magical place, one in which a couple of kids can befriend a bum that hangs out in their neighborhood; a rich old man can build said bum his own cabin in the garden so he won’t be living on the streets; cops will give bums food and water instead of trouble. And of course, good always prevails over evil in the end. It’s kinda like some of those other contemporary-fairy-tale children’s books like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, plus drugs and booze and profanity.
I felt like I got to know the characters enough to really care about them, but once I finished the book, I realized I didn’t really know all that much about them. How were these characters defined by their qualities and experiences? They end up seeming kind of one-dimensional and you want to know what they think and feel. The story feels concluded once you finish the last page, but then you think about it and you start wanting to know more. How did things turn out? 
But of course, this is all after the fact, anyway. Once you start reading, you’re drawn into the world of the Hollanders and none of these musings matter.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review: Cruciverbalism in stories: a feature on Ben Segal’s ’78 Stories’

In the introduction of Life: A User’s Manual, Georges Perec’s narrator writes, ‘despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.’

Ben Segal’s 78 Stories: A Crossword Novella is a bit of an anomaly. Perhaps it’s in the name. For something entitled 78 Stories one would think that storytelling is of pinnacle importance. But when one sees the layout of said book, one quickly realises that that’s not the case.

Because 78 Stories is a giant crossword/cross-story puzzle. Instead of letters within each box there’s a little snippet of a story contained. And each of these snippets is connected by an ‘across’ line/clue and a ‘down’ line/clue – meaning that the snippet is actually a part of two perhaps similar, perhaps disjointed, perhaps parallel, perhaps non-intersecting stories. In fact the wonderful thing about this ‘book’ – Can one even call it that? The author seems to think so. – is that you can’t pinpoint any character or any idea because the structure inhibits that; it’s part of something grander than itself. As if it’s resisting reading. Which then makes the puzzle even more irresistible. A vicious cycle. And a very postmodern one, without the inherent snobbery and ego inherent in that labelling.

Following in the footsteps of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, a fiction that uses the idea of the standard jigsaw puzzle to piece together the lives of the residents of an apartment block in Paris, and in the veins of Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece Pale Fire, which constructs and deconstructs a poem through commentary, which is then deconstructed by the reader’s inherent belief in the narrator’s insanity, Segal’s 78 Stories project is attempting a bold project for a first book. In order to create stories that use the same sentences and character names as as this novella needs, the author has to be precise without being too specific, needs to think out everything mathematically before putting any description to paper.

Unfortunately this means that most of the sentences are of the same equation: subject, verb, then the rest of the predicate. Variation would otherwise lock certain boxes (snippets) into being too specific, unable to be pliable and mould itself to the across and down ‘clues’. It’s a work that continuously has you wondering about the preparation and the revisions that had to go into this book, the countless hours that were spent working and reworking the descriptions so that each across and down snippet fit precisely where it was supposed to.

Sometimes it’s the story of a church mouse Carl who has fallen in love with Paul, the man whose house he’s invaded. Getting so angry seeing Paul with his girlfriend Carl gnaws into the girlfriend’s car tires in order to kill her. And it works. Sometimes it’s about a waiter named Paul who watches a crossword puzzle solver die in his café and, after his patron dies, he nonchalantly picks up the puzzle and brings it to the kitchen, perhaps perturbed because he won’t be receiving a tip from the dead man. Sometimes it’s about Sandra whose repetitive pictures are disapproved by her boyfriend Paul’s brother Joseph, which sets Sandra off on a missive writing scheme.

It’s not just the fact that these stories are physically attached that brings them together. Uncannily Segal is able to create 180 degree symmetry, where the stories in the upper left corner of the puzzle (about the death of a crossword solver in a café) echo those in the bottom right (about the death of a man after being mauled by a bear). The unrequited love of Carl the church mouse in the upper right is echoed by the painful rejection of Sandra in the bottom left. Etc.

To give a short excerpt of the writing, of the trenchant and biting tone Segal has: in this selection Sandra, the repetitive picture drawer, and Paul, a man who works for a paper obsessed with the Mayan long count which claims the end of the world in 2012, decide to get married:

They agreed to wed on the 16th of December, 2012. That gave them enough time to annul the commitment if the world didn’t end on the 21st. It even built in a little extra time in case the Mayans were off by a few hours in their predictions. Neither Paul nor Sandra was even sure they wanted to cancel the marriage in the event that the earth was ok.

In a way, 78 Stories is like watching the process of writing unfold before your eyes. We see names and stories appear and reappear, and it makes the reader wonder whether these are in fact separate stories or intertwining ones, or – more fascinatingly – if they are false starts of each other, if they’re the winding routes that the narrator attempted to explore. For that would explain the reuse of characters’ names and plot devices, but in slightly modified tones and registers. It’s like experiencing a sort of askew déjà vu. Each box builds upon the one above it and the one to its left, and yet remains distinct and alone. And as the aforementioned Perec quote reminds us, all of your feelings, your preoccupations, your amusement brilliantly has all been conceived by the author – which in turn tells us that this is not a project we’re embarking on alone. Are we puppets? Or fellow travellers? Either way the author’s creativity is looking at us through the puzzle, within the puzzle, watching us unfold the stories as the stories unfold us.

Looking at Segal’s writing projects, it appears he’s interested in riding the boundary of the short story and the narrative prose poem (some people I guess refer to this as flash fiction, but I think Segal is doing something more than giving us a quick shudder of life). His work is replete with sympathy, humour, and insight, all compacted within a couple hundred words, revealing the inane and ridiculous behaviour of human nature, the subtle nuances of people’s desires and actions. It’s absolutely fascinating to encounter and experience.
Thanks to publisher for providing a review copy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Note on Sarcasm and Wit

I’ve been going through all the shortlists for the BBAW awards, and I’ve discovered so many blogs. I mean, I know there are a lot out there, but there are a lot out there. It got me thinking that one of the main draws of book blogs (and blogs in general), besides getting so many good recommendations for my ‘to read’ list, is getting to know and enjoy the personalities of the blogs’ authors. 

Sadly, I think I have been focusing so much on writing a good and coherent review in my posts (coherent because I tend to inarticulately ramble when talking out loud) that I have put my stunning personality, sarcasm, and wit on the back burner. And that’s not the point—my goal is to always be fairly blunt and give an honest opinion and reaction to a book. My own mother even praised my blog-writing wit when I hopped the pond last year, and I’m fairly certain before that she wouldn’t have been able to define the word “blog.”
So I hope to amend this. And because I enjoy sites like The Superficial, Passive Aggressive Notes, Overheard in New York, People of Walmart, Texts From Last Night, STFU Marrieds, and Cats That Look Like Hitler, I was very excited to discover these equally entertaining blogs in the past couple of days:
In memory of a masterpiece of public television, I leave you with this. Just how I remember it, lying in front of the TV on my grandparents’ carpet drinking milkshakes.