In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote, I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we … Continue reading
The Round House by Louise Erdrich A friend gave me her ARC of the book, which I added to my stack + the book won the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction + I wanted a big, thick novel to … Continue reading
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, the debut novel by Heidi Durrow, is a story that will make you ache in all the best ways. Barbara Kingsolver chose it as the winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction in 2008, and it was published by Algonquin in 2010. It is a story simply told, as in
I want to write something/so simply/about love/or about pain/that even/as you are reading/you feel it…*
264 pages, 2 parts, and 6 points of view. With solid details like ten-dollar bills wrapped in aluminum foil.
On page one, Rachel is leaving the hospital. On page two, she refers to the accident. What has already happened is revealed (not here) slowly over time, never making us angry or confused and building a picture we want to resist for so many reasons but that ultimately we can’t avoid seeing.
From Rachel, who is in sixth grade when the book begins:
I am caught in before and after time. Last-time things and firsts. (8)
Grandma uses a sharp comb and it feels like she’s dividing me in half. (11)
From Jamie, who will adopt the strong name Brick:
When he finally reached the courtyard, he saw that his bird was not a bird at all. His bird was a boy and a girl and a mother and a child. (19)
With assured echoes from the beginning of the book to the end and from mother to child, The Girl who Fell from the Sky is at the same time a story we have never read before (as Barbara Kingsolver writes on its cover) and a story we all carry with us.
* from “I Want to Write Something So Simply” by Mary Oliver Evidence
Here’s what’s up and coming at
THE WRITING LIFE:
1) ANOTHER LOOSE SALLY – Hunger Mountain’s blog about writers and writing anchored by Claire Guyton (check in every Thursday!)
2) AUTHOR VISITS – interviews with the Hunger Mountain contributors
3) CRAFT SHORTS & ESSAYS – large and small doses of craft (online submissions for both forms now open)
~first short: On Endings: 11 Strategies by David Jauss
~May essay: Conjuring the Magic of Story by Stephanie Friedman
4) LISTS: LITERARY & LAUNDRY – coming soon – postcards from the organizational side of the writing brain
5) WRITER, INC., debuting in September, memos from the business of the writer’s life
6) REVIEWS GONE SIDEWAYS – coming soon – anything but your mother’s reviews.
Check us out here
The Pulitzer Prize in Fiction was awarded today to A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, “an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed.”
For more about A Visit From the Goon Squad on Catching Days:
- Dear LATimes, This is a photo of Jennifer Egan
- You gonna let that goon push you around?
- Pure Egan
- The squad: goon 3
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog
Each chapter of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad can stand alone as a story, but united, these chapters took my breath away. I got chills as I discovered yet another connection between them: Characters who age and reappear. Younger selves revealed. Shadows filled in. Events alluded to that come to pass. The language itself (Chapter 13 is called “Pure Language.)
The subject of time and what it does to us is threaded throughout Goon Squad. From Chapter 3: “Ask Me If I Care:”
Lou looks so happy, surrounded by his kids like any normal dad, that I can’t believe this Lou with us is the very same Lou.
From Chapter 5: “You (Plural):”
My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?”
From Chapter 11: “Goodbye, My Love:”
“Let’s make sure it’s always like this.” Ted knew exactly why she’d said it…because she’d felt the passage of time.
From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”
What he needed was to find fifty more people like him, who had stopped being themselves without realizing it.
And in that moment, the longing he’d felt for Sasha at last assumed a clear shape: Alex imagined walking into her apartment and finding himself still there—his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.
In addition to time, A Visit From the Goon Squad is also about music. The book is divided into Side A and Side B, recalling 33s and 45s. The main character, Bennie Salazar, founded the Sow’s Ear record label. In my previous post, I quoted an excerpt that mentions, in the same paragraph, Bennie and a Jets game–a subtle reference to Elton John’s song.
Chapter 12 is Alison’s (the daughter of Sasha who worked for Bennie) power point presentation on “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” This 75-page slide show is stunning in its juxtaposition of word restraint and emotional impact.
In addition to the surface, there’s below the surface, before the surface, after… From Chapter 6: “X’s and O’s:”
I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once and asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me.
E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “Music … does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way … and when we have finished does not every item…lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?”
*cross-posted at The Contrary Blog
In her selected shorts interview, Jennifer Egan talked about how, years ago, she abandoned a story because she couldn’t find any way to rein in the material. Well, in A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan is the master of compression.
In Chapter 1, she creates a shortcut based on a time period idiosyncratic to the story.
Prewallet, Sasha had been in the grip of a dire evening: lame date (yet another) brooding behind dark bangs, sometimes glancing at the flat-screen TV, where a Jets game seemed to interest him more than Sasha’s admittedly overhandled tales of Bennie Salazar, her old boss, who was famous for founding the Sow’s Ear record label and who also (Sasha happened to know) sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee—as an aphrodisiac, she suspected—and sprayed pesticide in his armpits.
Later in the story, she uses the term postwallet. These terms cut down on word bulk, making the story tighter. Egan will use such a shortcut again in Chapter 4, “Safari,”—postcoffee.
Also in “Safari,” Egan uses a technique that she herself specifically referred to in the interview as a shortcut:
It’s Cora, Lou’s travel agent. She hates Mindy, but Mindy doesn’t take it personally—it’s Structural Hatred, a term she coined herself and is finding highly useful on this trip. A single woman in her forties who wears high-collared shirts to conceal the thready sinews of her neck will structurally despise the twenty-three-year-old girlfriend of a powerful male who not only employs said middle-aged female but is paying her way on this trip.
On the next page, Egan uses the terms Structural Resentment, Structural Affection, Structural Incompatibility, and Structural Desire. The use of these terms is also brilliant characterization of Mindy:
And keeping Lou’s children happy, or as close to happy as is structurally possible, is part of Mindy’s job.”
Later in this story, Egan will use the term Structural Dissatisfaction, threading the shortcut throughout the chapter and reinforcing the coherent fictional world she is creating in this particular story.
In this same chapter, Egan again shows how quickly a character’s life can be told by connecting it to an image. Here, she shapes the key elements of Lou’s past into a contrail, short itself for condensation trail, the artificial cloud line created by the exhaust of an airplane:
Lou is one of those men whose restless charm has generated a contrail of personal upheaval that is practically visible behind him: two failed marriages and two more kids back home in LA, who were too young to bring on this three-week safari. This safari is a new business venture of Lou’s old army buddy, Ramsey, with whom he drank and misbehaved, having barely avoided Korea almost twenty years ago.
Second post in a series of three on Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. For the first post, click here.
cross-posted at The Contrary Blog
As some of you may know from my recent post, last week, Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. This morning it was also long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.
A Visit From the Goon Squad is brilliant. It’s not a novel in the traditional sense. The chapters can be read and appreciated as stand-alone pieces. In fact, four have been published that way: “Selling the General” in the anthology This Is Not Chick Lit published in 2006; and three in The New Yorker: “Found Objects” (Chapter 1) in the December 10, 2007 issue, “Safari” (Chapter 4) in the January 11, 2010 issue, and “Ask Me If I Care” (Chapter 3) in the March 8, 2010 issue.
In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin is unsure whether the book is “a novel, a collection of carefully arranged interlocking stories or simply a display of Ms. Egan’s extreme virtuosity.” In an interview on Selected Shorts, Jennifer Egan referred to sections of her book as stories and also as chapters of a longer book.
The chapters move backward and forward, and part of the pleasure of reading each one is to figure out where we are in time. From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”
Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?
And there are sufficient clues—dates, ages, references to events we’ve read about in other chapters—that the reader enjoys the challenge and never feels frustrated. And after all we should struggle with time, for that is the subject of the book. Time. Who we were then, who we are now, and how we got from there to here—from side A to side B.
From Chapter 7: “A to B:”
The album’s called A to B, right? Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen.
In the same Selected Shorts interview, Egan said, “And one of the principles of the longer book is that each chapter had to be written in a very different way technically from all the others.”
Because each of the chapters has its own separate sound, when they all play together, the result is the answer to E. M. Forster’s question in Aspects of the Novel:
Is there any effect in novels comparable to the effect of the Fifth Symphony as a whole, where, when the orchestra stops, we hear something that has never actually been played?
The first in a series of posts on A Visit From the Goon Squad. For the second post, click Pure Egan.
cross-posted at The Contrary Blog
Dear Los Angeles Times,
Regarding your headlines* today on the National Book Critics Circle Awards, the photo you posted is not Jennifer Egan. In addition, I would also like to point out that you mention the name of Mr. Franzen’s novel, the one that didn’t win but it’s true was written by a male, while you merely allude to the novel that in fact won the award as “work.” Granted, A Visit From the Goon Squad has more words in it, but it did win. May I suggest the following changes:
Egan Wins National Book Critics Circle’s fiction prize
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad bests Jonathan Franzen’s work. The nonfiction award goes to ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.’
cross-posted on The Contrary Blog
Black Maps, a collection of stories by David Jauss, won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction in 1995 (Lorrie Moore/judge). These nine stories–with only one in present tense and the rest in past, and four in third person and five in first–all deal with the crossing of borders. In addition to each story, the book as a whole has a story to tell.
As Robert Frost said, “If you have a book of twenty-four poems, the book itself should be the twenty-fifth poem.”
David Jauss writes of his collection, “The book, then, moves thematically from negation to affirmation, from the blackest of maps to one that shows the possibility of light.” After understanding this, it was no surprise that I preferred the stories toward the end of the book.
Each story is extremely well written. The first story, “Torque,” takes a limo and turns it into an intrinsic symbol, one that acquires its meaning from the story.
If he had a limo, everyone would see that he wasn’t who they’d always thought he was…
And then later in the story,
He wanted to prove to her that he was the kind of man who made his dreams come true, the kind of man who deserved a limo.
The fifth story,“Firelight,” starts with a moment and then takes us back in time and leads us up to it. In the story are 3 repetitions of the word “firelight,” and then the words “fire” and “light” separate in the last paragraph.
“Brutality” includes this metaphor: “thinking thoughts she didn’t dare let bleed into words.” It deals with the idea of a continuous life:
And who you were is a part of who you are, isn’t it?
In “The Late Man,” allowing the character to imagine what he could have done adds depth to the story.
“Glossolalia,” the last story in the collection, was chosen by Alice Adams for the Best American Short Stories in 1991. It also won a Pushcart Prize. In it, a son tells the story of his father’s breakdown. The first words of the story “That winter” prepare the reader for the very effective jump in distance later in the story in a paragraph that includes the phrase “…our life together after that winter…” Then there’s another jump in perspective and distance on the last page: “Perhaps if I had said yes, we might have talked about….” Then what did happen in such a beautiful sentence using an echo:
But I didn’t say yes, and in the seven years that remained of his life, we never came as close to ending the winter that was always, for us, an unspoken but living part of our present.
Then a return to a specific moment as well as a narrowing of time from a season to a night, from that winter to that night, echoing the opening. And a last paragraph again with repetition of that night. Wow.
My second residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts…
Monday, 6/28/10: Up at 5:15 to fly from Columbus to Atlanta to Boston. I rent a car in Boston and drive 3 hours to Montpelier, arriving just in time for the last few minutes of the fifteen-minute Orientation. Then a meeting for 2nd semester students and at 4:30, the first lecture–“How We Know What’s Done is Done” by David Jauss: Anne Lamott says that finishing a work of art is like putting an octopus to bed. You pull up the covers and there goes a leg slipping out. At 8:00 Connie May Fowler, new faculty member, reads from her recently published novel.
Tuesday, 6/29/10 (my anniversary and my son’s birthday!): The first workshop–I signed up for a special workshop on publishing led by Domenic Stansberry. In addition to discussing manuscripts, we will each do a presentation on a literary publication. Doug Glover gives a lecture on “Symbols and Image Pattern.” Look at Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood to see how she uses the title image to unify and add layers of meaning to the novel. Follow an image each time it is mentioned to see what story emerges. When you write, let your characters have different responses to an image.
Wednesday, 6/30/10: A poetry lecture by Leslie Ullman on “Dialogue: Engine of the Practical and the Mysterious”–there can be a dialogue between the title and the body of the poem and dialogue between parts of a sentence by using phrases and commas, dialogue between the known parts of ourselves and the unknown, between will and imagination. Our second workshop with presentations on City Lights and McSweeney’s and a impromptu visit by VCFA graduate Vivian Dorsel, Editor of Upstreet.
Thursday, 7/1/10: A lecture by Philip Graham on how to bring everyday skills to writing. A wonderful lecture on landscape by graduating student Robin MacArthur, who is also half of the band Red Heart the Ticker–“our obsessions are key to our art.” Our faculty preference forms are due by 3:00–as a 2nd semester student I list 5. Advisers are posted at 7:30 on a bulletin board. So excited to be working with David Jauss this semester.
Friday, 7/2/10: In our third workshop, we’re discussing manuscripts. Graduating student Rachel Mullis gives an interesting lecture on the novella. Visiting poet Claudia Emerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Late Wife, reads six poems from that book, a brand new poem she wrote this week, several poems from her book, Figure Studies, and an amazing poem from her book in progress, “Secure the Shadows,” about the photos that used to be taken of the dead. The highlight of the reading was the finale when her husband joined her on stage with his guitar and they put her poem “Aftermath” to music, adding the captivating refrain–if I had a gun, I’d a shot her dead…
Saturday, 7/3/10: I take the day off and drive a little over an hour to Ferrisburg to visit the Kingsland Bay State Park, which used to be the French Camp Ecole Champlain. I was there the summers of 1970, 71, and 72.
Sunday, 7/4/10: An exciting lecture by new faculty member Trinie Dalton on “How Easy It Is to Enter” the abject, the place where meaning collapses. I meet with Dave Jauss to discuss my semester writing and reading. In our workshop, we hear presentations on Kore Press, Glimmer Train, The Paris Review, the Iowa Review. I talk about One Story. There’s a softball game (poets vs prose writers–prose wins!), a craft fair, BBQ on the Quad and later the Talent Show–Red Heart the Ticker plays two wonderful songs. Later Montpelier fireworks.
Monday, 7/5/10: Lectures by new faculty members: David Treuer on “The Art and Sense of Style” (“we want to make style work for us”) and Connie May Fowler on “The Necessary Evil Called Exposition” (“we want a balance between exposition and scene and we want to render exposition in exquisite detail”) We’ve been here a week and everyone (including me) is starting to wear down. The heat wave is not helping. Vermont does not do air-conditioning as well as Georgia does. At the student reading, I read part of my recently finished story, “The Blue Parrot.”
Tuesday, 7/6/10: Wonderful lecture by new faculty member Patrick Madden on “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things” (“I’m in love with essays”). More student lectures and faculty readings and another workshop.
Wednesday, 7/7/10: Last workshop with presentations on Esquire and Harper Collins. Signed semester study plans must be turned in before we leave. At graduation, after the graduate’s name is read, an excerpt of their work is also read. Lovely. It’s time to hit the road for Boston. I arrive in time to see the sun set over the harbor.
[you might also be interested in the first residency]
with new pages!
#2: What’s happening?
#3: What’s in a cover?
If we don’t subscribe to the journals where we want to see our writing, who will?
For lunch today or tomorrow, make a pb&j and spend your $ on a subscription to the journal of your choice.
“Naked Chinese People” is the first story in the collection California Transit by Diane Lefer, my adviser this semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I thought if I was going to be working with her, I should read some of her writing. California Transit won the 2005 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Its eight stories tell of displaced characters, of characters on journeys, of individuals who are part of families who are part of something larger. These are stories that matter.
The first sentence of “Naked Chinese People” is “We were always finding naked Chinese people in the shower.” A few paragraphs later in this first of thirty-one unmarked sections:
“It’s in and around our weekend cabin in the desert, now equipped with a lock, that the events I’m about to narrate took place. The lock on the door is irrelevant, as are the naked Chinese.”
The Narrator is going to tell us a story, but there’s another story here too, buried under the Narrator’s words and in the seemingly random sections interspersed throughout these 14 pages. “Let me in,” one of the characters says throughout the story. At least nine threads are mixed and mingled to create this wonderfully layered story.
“At the Site Where Vision is Most Perfect” uses a distant omniscient narrator to tell the story of three individuals who make up a family. The camera/narrator follows each of these individuals but the really cool thing is that the sections are unified not by individual or place but by time.
In the opening section, Matt and Courtney are working on a float. Paragraph. “At this moment, his mother is being handcuffed. Two paragraphs. “Matt’s father is walking across campus…”
This powerful story is a perfect example of the way a story teaches you how to read it.
The ending of the last story of the collection, “The Prosperity of Cities and Desert Places,” will take your breath away:
I am walking to Los Angeles. I am speaking only for myself. I am singing: These hands are your hands, These hands are my hands… I sing and there is no one here to stop me.
An Equal Stillness, the debut novel by Francesca Kay, who grew up in South-east Asia and India and now lives in Oxford, was one of the best books I read in 2009. My review of this book is now online in Contrary Magazine‘s Winter Issue. An Equal Stillness also won the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers.
I imagine that the inspiration for the UK edition’s book cover came from this passage:
“In her great painting of that time, simply called Santiago, the foreground is a block of saffron broken by a line of deepest blue, above which is a band of blue that is even darker, so dark it might be black if it were not for the light contained in it which magically shines through.”
“The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory.”
Which is why he is often praised for his sense of place. But in a July 2, 2004 article in the New York Times, he talked about this. “I’ve never written nearly as much about place as people seem to think I do. I just write about class.”
In The Bridge of Sighs, published in 2007, he begins in a completely different manner. Its first sentence is,
“First, the facts.”
Although I enjoyed both books, I like The Bridge of Sighs even better than Empire Falls.
“He stepped from the dark porch, into the moonlight, and with his bloody head and his empty stomach hot, savage, and courageous with whiskey, he entered the street which was to run for fifteen years.”
“The whiskey died away in time and was renewed and died again, but the street ran on.”
The street running on recurs in the novel–in both language and image.
It should have come as no surprise to me when I recently discovered that Faulkner was also a poet. Apparently he referred to himself as a “failed poet.” Read this and see what you think:
“He thought that it was loneliness which he was trying to escape and not himself. But the street ran on: catlike, one place was the same as another to him. But in none of them could he be quiet. But the street ran on in its moods and phases, always empty…”
And if you’re one of those people (I am) who likes to hear the writer’s speaking voice, you can listen to part of Faulkner’s December 1950 Nobel Prize speech online. In the speech, he says that the only subjects worth writing about are “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.”
If you’ve never read Faulkner,I recommend starting with Light in August.
First sentence: “The man arrived after morning prayers.”
The first paragraph goes on to paint the scene of that morning. “The man waited, and the boys watched…”
The second paragraph drops back to explain: “Men often came for children.” There were some more likely to be chosen. There were others more likely to be passed over. “Ren was one of them.”
The third paragraph continues: “He had no memory of a beginning…”
If you want to read a good story, The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti, is the book for you. It is a solid, old-fashioned story–as in, something happens and then something else and then something else. On Monday night, it won the 2008 John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize.
In a New York Times review, The Good Thief was described as “an American Dickensian tale with touches of Harry Potterish whimsy, along with a macabre streak of spooky New England history.”
I couldn’t put it down.
The Gathering, by Irish writer Anne Enright, won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. I read it in April. In this novel, the narrator describes her family of origin in terms of the labels we acquire, as families and as individuals in a family.
- “The Hegartys didn’t start kissing until the late eighties and even then we stuck to Christmas.”
- “There is always one child who is able, not just to look, but also to see. The quiet one.”
- “I am the careful one.”
But what I remember most about this book are the different ways Enright uses memory:
This is what I remember, but that can’t be right:
“It must have been the February of 1968. I was still eight, Liam was nine, and we were going up to ‘say goodbye’ to Charlie. I think I knew, even at eight, that you can say goodbye all you like, but when someone is dead they’re not going to say anything back….My memory has them all bundled in shawls; Ada’s back ascending in front of us in corseted black taffeta. But this is 1968: there would have been patterned headscarves and big-buttoned coats that smelt of the rain.”
I don’t remember that so I must not have been there:
“I don’t remember the hospital. At a guess, Ada did not take us inside.”
I don’t remember that; it’s not what was important:
“I wish I could remember exactly what he said, but conversation doesn’t stick to my memory of Liam.”
Which gives the novel the air of a memoir, of a struggle for the truth.
I’m trying to nail down my first memory. Every time I bring the hammer up, it seems to slip away. I think what I remember is green drinks in glasses and rough red brick.
If I weren’t reading all of Rachel Cusk‘s books to look at how her writing develops over time, I would not have finished her sixth book, In the Fold, published in 2005. As one reviewer wrote, “too little happened to too many people.” Or another, the book was “so lacking in anything to capture my interest that I couldn’t even finish it.”
There are other opinions: it was long listed for the 2005 Booker Prize.
In the Fold is narrated by a man and full of dialogue. Perhaps an important step in a writer’s development is to try something different. It gives you a reference point: You do that better than this. And then you can go boldly forth.
My favorite thing about the book is the name of the country home where most of the action takes place. It’s called Egypt–no explanation given. My favorite line refers to Egypt: “This is our home. It’s the place that matters, not the people in it.”
Another interesting point: without realizing I had done it, two of the titles of posts on Rachel Cusk involve circles. In this novel, the narrator’s wife says, “He’ll come around.” The narrator then explains that she must be talking about the ‘big wheel,’ a theory whose basis is that “existence is not linear but circular and repetitive.”