Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pulitzer Project, Book #6: March by Geraldine Brooks

I would never have picked this novel up of my own accord. I rarely, if ever, read historical fiction and actually find myself actively avoiding anything to do with the Civil War (books, movies, documentaries, etc...). I had also never read Little Women, which I feared would put me at a disadvantage in reading this book. But I am now so pleased that I did.

The story of the missing father from Little Women, March explores the year that this abolitionist acts as a Union army chaplain during the war. What I enjoyed the most were the moral complexities that were illustrated through March's character. I felt that it provided such an authentic and troubling depiction of what we typically consider a "just" war.

My only real complaint was that the switch to Marmee's point of view near the end of the novel made me feel less compassionate toward March. He actually started to really irritate me when seen through Marmee's eyes; his convictions began to seem less honorable and more selfish. The voice of these chapters also were not clearly enough differentiated from March's voice, which pulled me from the novel's dream a bit. But overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On New Projects

So I am in that weird place in the novel-writing process where I am actually almost "done." Meaning...on June 1st I will send it to my editor and then, hopefully, have little more than some tinkering to do before it goes into print. There's still work to be done, but I can finally start to entertain the ideas for the next book.

I'm not one of those people who can work on more than one thing at a time. I am totally a totally monogamous sort of writer. But at this stage of the game, I am like a new divorcée, just waiting for the divorce papers to be finalized. There have been flirtations, of course....little notes jotted into my notebook, nights spent thinking about the new book instead of the one I'm with, but I have remained faithful. But now that the end is near, I have that itchy thrill of what will be next. New.

Starting a new project for me is so similar to falling in love. I seriously get butterflies in my stomach just thinking about all the possibilities. It keeps me up at night. I obsess. It's all I can think about. Everything I see and hear makes me think about it. My whole world revolves around it.

So here's to June 1st and new projects and falling in love. Again.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Blurb

You know those endorsements you always see on the back of book jackets? The glowing praise, the author love? Poignant! Haunting! A stunning debut! You'd think from these quotes that authors must be an effusive lot by nature, a whole repertoire of glowing adjectives at their fingertips, happily spouting off praise for their colleagues. Yeah, sure. I have been at both ends of this process (as both blurber and blurbee), and the truth is that there is agony in both positions.

As one seeking endorsement, this kind of literary groveling takes a certain amount of grace, but it mostly requires blind audacity. Approaching a favorite author, asking them to take time out of their busy lives to read 300, 400, 500 pages of your work and then divining the perfect words of praise? You try it. And when they decline, see if it doesn't make you hot under the collar or filled with the cold awful drip of doubt and shame.

On the other end, I absolutely understand the inclination to just say no. What if the book is a stinker? What if you put your name on a pile of ca-ca? And when you are receiving multiple requests how on earth do you decide who to endorse and who to ignore? Is it easier to just say no across the board?

My novels have been endorsed by some very generous (and busy) people. Howard Frank Mosher and Larry McMurtry both took a chance on me with my first novel. Rene Steinke, Ursula Hegi, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Michelle Richmond, Lee Martin, Marisa de los Santos, Garth Stein, and Luanne Rice have all managed to find nice things to say about my work. Of course, there is no way to measure the effect of these kind words, no gauge to check the influence of their seals of approval. But what I do know is that I am entirely grateful for their generosity and time. And as an author receiving requests, I make every attempt to pay it forward. Of course, there are times when I too am simply too busy with my own work, or when I fear a novel may not sustain my interest...that I may not be able to find enough kind words to offer in return. But as a rule, if the author asks nicely, and the book looks good, I will make the time. Call me superstitious, but I suspect there are some karmic repercussions and rewards for all of this.

However, as I embark on the next round of solicitations (hoping the authors I love will love me back), I am steeling myself for whatever comes. Trying not to let my feelings get hurt...trying not to wonder if they're really busy or just think the book isn't worthy of their time.

On that's a pretty funny and revealing article on the blurb. Hmmm...Should I send an email to Nicole Krauss next??

Saturday, May 14, 2011


I haven't written about the new book (Grace) here at all...and I just realized I have now been working on it steadily for over a year. That's a good long time. You'd think I'd be nearing the finish line. But for me, at this stage of the game is when I start second-guessing every sentence. This morning (SATURDAY), I woke up at 5 a.m. in a near panic attack about it. And so I got up, and started to read it from the beginning, trying to pretend that someone else wrote it. Didn't work.

This is my seventh novel (actually ninth if you count all of the ones I've written), and I keep wondering if I will ever get to a point where this sort of crazed insecurity phase of the process disappears.

Here is what I do know. I have two weeks until the next draft is due to my editor. This week I will comb through it again...character by character, tinkering, fixing, and probably freaking out. I will hopefully get it to the point where I can bear to let it go. And then I will hope and wait and try to breathe.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The End of the Road: Book #5 The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Normally, I am not a huge fan of sci-fi; I think the last sci-fi book I read was called The Hero from Otherwhere, and I read it in the fifth grade. (I distinctly recall making a tissue paper wolf collage after completing it.) But despite any initial resistance I had genre-wise, there was something very engaging about this story. The language was at times absolutely lyrical ("At crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering" -- wow!), and the descriptions visceral, but it was actually the simple and subtle portrait of a father and son's relationship that most captivated me.

The unnamed father and son of The Road spend the entire novel in a futile journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape. Survival is the prevailing goal, leaving little room for much else. The son has no recollection of the world before its demise, and the father must navigate a future-less world with a young child at his side. The terse dialogue reveals beautifully (and with tremendous subtlety) the nuances of their relationship.

I was actually reminded throughout the novel of one of my favorites of last year: Room by Emma Donoghue. In that novel, a mother and her young son are confined to a small room (a room in which they are being held captive). Like the boy in The Road, Jack has no knowledge of the world outside the room. What struck me was how differently each of these parents deal with their children. While "the man" in The Road discourages dreams (fearful that they are a sign of surrender), the mother in Room relies on them to create a magical place for her small child. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if she'd been the one to survive the apocalypse instead -- if she and Jack were the ones making their way through this frozen, ashen world. Perhaps what differentiated the two parents was the simple prospect of a future: hope the one thing that eludes the father in The Road.

I did find myself worrying throughout the novel about how McCarthy would handle the end. And while it was satisfying, it also felt a little too tidy, a little too happy (despite the larger tragedy at hand). It didn't detract from my overall experience of the novel, however. Read it!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Road to March

So I am reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy now (which is PP Book #5). It's a pretty bleak read, but I'm just so damned grateful for its simplicity and the absence of Spanglish, comic books, and footnotes, that it's already got a leg up on Oscar Wao.

Looking ahead, the next winner is March by Geraldine Brooks. I picked it up at the library yesterday, as I will probably finish The Road pretty quickly. However, I just read the jacket flap and realized that the gaps I've found in my literary canon seem to extend to my reading of children's classics as well. March is based on the father character in Little Women, which -- you guessed it -- I have never read. I have also never read Tolkien (maybe it would have helped with Oscar Wao), anything set in Narnia, The Phantom Toolbooth (at least not in its entirety), or The Secret Garden. So anyway...before March, I think I need to pick up a copy of Little Women. Maybe the girls will want to read it with me.

I also think I'm going to give myself a break every 5 or 10 years worth of PP Books to read something just for pure pleasure. What I'm most looking forward to right now is Don't Breathe a Word by fellow Vermonter, Jennifer MacMahon. There's another book called In Zanesville whose cover captivated me. (I'm a sucker for a good cover -- which is another reason why e-books have been a good thing for me -- no pretty packages to woo me.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book #4: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Lately, I have been so focused on determining what a writer's obligations are to a reader, I have neglected to address what the reader's expectations are. I've been looking at this project from a writer's eyes, and neglecting the reader's perspective. I have been so fixated on defining what the writer's job is that I fear I've neglected addressing how this relates to the reader's expectations. Through this, I am learning a lot about myself not only as a writer but as a reader.

Here's the deal with Oscar Wao:

In the eighth grade, I was homely beyond homely. 5' 9" tall, 100 pounds soaking wet with braces, glasses, and an unfortunate haircut (I think I was going for punk rock but it wound up instead as a sort of poodle mullet). Anyway...I knew that no one was going to ask me to the eighth grade graduation dance, and so I took matters into my own hands. I decided to shoot high and asked the most popular boy in the eighth grade. He was a new kid, a basketball player, and had perfectly feathered hair. And, for some unknown reason, he said YES. So the night of the dance came. I got a new dress and high heeled white sandals to match. He showed up with a corsage. I swooned. At the dance, we danced two slow songs (I thought I would die then and there from happiness) and then he put his arm around me as we sat huddled in the corner with all the other couples. I had never felt so blissed out in my entire thirteen years of life. He politely excused himself at some point to get some water, and I sat grinning (I was in. I had a date!) amongst the other couples. I sat. And grinned. And waited. And waited. He never came back. And I was stuck, sitting with all these happy pairs alone for the next two hours until my dad came to pick me up.

This book is just like that boy. I was enticed by the reviews, the Pulitzer win, the recommendation of several readers I trust. But the date was a bomb. Here's why:

While the book purports to be about Oscar Wao (you'd think from that title anyway), but it's not. It's about Oscar, his mother, his sister, and his friend (and narrator) Yunior. It's also about Trujillo's reign of terror in the Dominican Republic. While all of these stories are interesting, the tragedy of Oscar's life doesn't resonate, because I didn't get to spend enough time with him to even begin to care about him.

The Diaspora it continually addresses is (ironically or intentionally?) replicated by the incredible and willful inaccessibility of the prose, which is littered with Dominican slang as well as obscure comic book and Japanese anime references. I read the entire novel with my laptop open to a website which kindly offered annotations. (I hadn't seen as many annotations since The Divine Comedy in college.) The entire book made me feel like an outsider, that poor ugly girl sitting alone at the dance after the boy ditched me. Diaz ditched me!

The narrator. Man, he's an ass. He's flippant, he's sexist, and he does nothing but disparage his culture and people. I couldn't stand him. I also felt like I couldn't trust him, because he seemed more omniscient (read, authorial) than a genuine character. See where I'm headed with this?

So anyway, I leave this book, like I left the eighth grade graduation dance that night. Disappointed and a little pissed.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Brief Wondrous Site

Just started The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao...and I am telling you, thank goodness for whoever cobbled together this chapter by chapter annotation!

Book #3: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I loved this book. I truly, truly did. Initially, I worried that the linked stories were a cop-out...a way to get around writing a novel. But instead, this collection of stories about the characters living in Crosby, ME ultimately accomplished everything a novel could and more.

Olive Kitteridge, a quirky and bitter old lady, is at the heart of the collection, though often at the periphery of the stories. But the portrait that is painted of her is vivid and complete. I found myself in tears after the final story...and close to it in many of the others.

Strout writes without sentimentality about aging and marriage, love and disappointment. I will absolutely seek out her backlist.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Book #2: Tinkers by Paul Harding

When I teach Plot in my creative writing classes, I return again and again to Anne Lamott who says, "You need to be moving your characters forward, even if they only go slowly. Imagine moving them across a lily pond. If each lily pad is beautifully, carefully written, the reader will stay with you as you move toward the other side of the pond, needing only the barest of connections -- such as rhythm, tone, or mood (Bird by Bird, 59). This is a lily pad novel. The writing is lovely, elegiac in tone, and meticulous. This may very well be enough for some readers. However, I am not sure these beautifully constructed lily pads were quite enough for me. Perhaps the pond beneath was too murky.

This novel purports to be the story of George Washington Crosby, a clock repairman, as he lies on his deathbed. However, the novel's locus soon shifts to George's father, Howard, an epileptic traveling salesman who abandons his family when his wife decides to have him committed. We also see glimpses of Howard's father, a failed preacher. The book shifts back and forth among these characters, revealing the tenuous relationships that exist between these fathers and sons. While very little actually happens in the novel by way of plot, its scope is fairly grand, examining themes of fatherhood and absence and inheritance.

But what I found most frustrating about this novel was not that so little happened, but that those events that were dramatized felt (at times) arbitrary. I wanted Harding to achieve what Tobias Wolf manages in "Bullet in the Brain." But while Wolf captures (in three pages) an entire life in that moment before death, I felt like I had only the most impressionistic sense of George's life after nearly 200 pages in Harding's novel. This coupled with the also seemingly arbitrary shifts in point of view and lack of any cohesive structure left me frustrated and eager for the novel to end.

I champion the quiet novel, and there was much to be admired in Harding's ambition and prose. But there are other novels and stories that have done it better; Evening by Susan Minot is one.