you gonna let that goon push you around?

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.

Regardless of their severability, when read as pieces of a longer work, they shine–oh, they shine. Like separate parts of the universe talking to each other.

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?

Brilliant.

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 latimes: this is a photo of Jennifer Egan

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.’

Sincerely,

Cynthia

*

cross-posted on The Contrary Blog

life is meals

I’m approaching this post as I do my writing these days: without a plan in mind, I just sit down in front of the keyboard and continue.

Taking a break from the Christmas list, I wonder whether to write about the holidays, which reminds me of the first line of a Dickens novel…or whether to write about something other than the holidays. I think about what I’d like to read myself.

One of my favorite books ever is Light Years by James Salter. It was published in 1975, and I read it for the first time in 1990. One of my favorite (maybe my favorite) quotes in the book is this:

Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco.  Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.

James Salter and his wife Kay wrote a book together that was published in 2006– Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days. The entry for December 18th is on dining rooms. Apparently Thomas Jefferson used the State Dining Room in the White House for his office and let his pet mockingbird fly around. I remember I used to let the kids play ping-pong on our dining room table. You can still see faint ping marks.

i cannot get you close enough

When I last left you, I was on the floor with all my Ellen Gilchrist books surrounding me. I put the last one back on the shelf this morning. Well, that’s not exactly true. I kept two by my computer so I could write this post. I kind of knew what I wanted to write. So I started typing. But then I wanted to give you an excerpt so you could hear her voice.

I have a million paragraphs I could use, but I have one in my head that I read over the weekend and I want to find it. I’ve looked all the places I thought it would be. I’ve marked four other passages, but I want to find that one. So I’m pulling all the books off the shelf again. Back in a minute, I hope.

I give up. [there went a fox] But here’s one I also love. It’s the opening paragraph of the last story in the collection Drunk With Love. The story is called “Anna, Part I.”

“It was a cold day in the Carolinas, drizzling rain that seemed to hang in the sky, that barely seemed to fall. The trees were bare, the mountains hazy in the blue distance, the landscape opened up all the way to Virginia. It was a big day for Anna Hand. It was the day she decided to give up being a fool and go back to being a writer. She called her editor.”

What I learned about structure from looking through all these books and others, which is what started all this, is that you can pretty much do anything you want as long as it opens the book to the reader, including titling the last story in a collection “Anna, Part I.” So I’m going to let go of the question of structure for a while and go back to writing.

By the way, don’t you just love her titles?

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not searching for structure

I’m trying not to search for structure. I’m trying just to write. I wrote a few pages this morning.

With the other things I’ve written, I’ve seen the structure from the very beginning. As I type these words, I realize: I’ve also seen the story from the beginning too. So, hmmm…

Anyway, I’ve just read a few pages in Mark Rose’s Shakespearean Design. I spent ten minutes taking apart Pam Houston’s Sight Hound–8 chapters within which 12 different narrators have sections, some speaking only once.

Now I’m on the floor, playing with books. I’ve taken all of Ellen Gilchrist‘s books off my shelf–all 22 of them. I quickly return to the shelf her 1987 and her 2000 versions of Falling Through Space (her journal), as well as her book on The Writing LifeAnabasis (her novel that takes place in ancient times), her Collected Stories, and my hardback copy of The Anna Papers.

After a second’s glance, I also return to the shelf her two lives-in-stories: Nora Jane and Rhoda. I love these two books in which all the stories she wrote over twenty years about Rhoda are collected in one volume and those about Nora Jane, in another volume.

That leaves me with three stacks: her six other novels, her nine other collections of stories, and her one collection of novellas.

I start with the novels. The first one I pick up is The Anna Papers–possibly my favorite. There’s a Contents page:  a Prelude, and then five named parts. I skip the prelude, read the first paragraph of Chapter 1, skip to the second to last page of the first part and read. I turn the page to Part II, then another page to read the beginning of Chapter 15 (so the chapter numbers continue through the parts). I want to catch the reason for the separate parts. I read two and a half pages and am swept away.

That’s when I hopped up to write this post. The Anna Papers is one of the reasons I wanted to learn how to write. To do this. What she did.

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I want something good to read

IMG_2003How many times have you thought this or said this?

When I say it, I actually don’t mean good; I mean that will take my breath away. That will make me want to read it again. So I say this, I’m guessing, three or four times a year. I’m not the only one. I found a blog post last week that actually illustrated the problem.

When I read book after book and they’re all just okay or not good at all and I long for a book where I’m rereading lines over and over again or reading as slowly as possible, then I either resort to one of my all-time favorite books or to a classic–Jane Austin, Faulkner, Dickens, Fitzgerald.

Which takes me to the question of how I choose what book to read next anyway. Because if I chose better, perhaps I would never come to… I want something good to read.

I discovered another blog post last week (yes, guilty of too much time on the internet) where the writer/reader decided to become more intentional about choosing what to read. She came up with specific criteria about what constituted a good book. The problem, of course, with this approach is that you can’t know whether the book meets these criteria until you read it.

Taking a look at how I chose what I’ve read lately:

Don’t Cry-writing group pick (one a month)

Stop-Time-recommended by a writer for its form

Out Stealing Horses-recommended by an independent book store owner when I asked “if you could recommend one book in your store, what would it be?”

Tender is the Night-never read it before and a classic about a marriage (my novel-in-progress is about a marriage)

How do you choose what to read next?

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full circle

img_1238In July, I read Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, a writer I’d never read before.  Upon finishing the novel, I immediately wanted to reread it.  Instead, I began a journey that has lasted four months:  reading each of Rachel Cusk’s books in the order she wrote them.  With this post, we come full circle, back to the book that started it all.

Watching Rachel Cusk develop as a writer was like watching a house being built.  With Arlington Park, her most recent book published in 2006, not only is the house built and decorated, but the author is now sitting by the fire with a latte.

Arlington Park is well written and digs deep into truth.  It’s about women–real and flawed.  It’s about marriage.  It’s about not only the lives we plan to live and choose to live, but the lives we end up living.  In an article written in 2005, Cusk said, “I remain fascinated by where you go as a woman once you are a mother, and if you ever come back.”  Arlington Park is one of the best books I read in 2008, and a new addition to my all-time favorite books.

The first sentence:  “All night the rain fell on Arlington Park.”  The falling of rain appears like a refrain throughout the book.  The rain falls on everyone in Arlington Park.  It falls on all of us.

The novel is divided into ten unmarked sections:  1-the rain fell; 2-Juliet; 3-Amanda; 4-Christine, Maisie and Stephanie at the mall; 5-Solly; 6-in the park/the rain had stopped; 7-Juliet; 8-Maisie; 9-Christine; and 10-party at Christine’s with Juliet, Maisie, and Maggie.

The first time I read it, I was so taken with Juliet that I didn’t want to leave her to switch to Amanda.  This time, it did not feel like a brusque change, but felt right.  Because it’s not just about one of us; it’s about all of us.

Here’s a little flavor of what you have to look forward to:

Juliet about a recording of a song by Ravel:  “The sound of it brought tears to Juliet’s eyes. It was the voice, that woman’s voice, so solitary and powerful, so–transcendent. It made Juliet think she could transcend it all, this little house with its stained carpets, its shopping, its flawed people, transcend the grey, rain-sodden distances of Arlington Park; transcend, even her own body, where bitterness lay like lead in the veins. She could open somewhere like a flower…open out all the petals packed inside her.”

Solly about her inability to communicate with a Japanese student renting out their extra room:  “…she became aware of how much of her lay shrouded in this inarticulable darkness.”

Solly:  “Suddenly she saw her life as a breeding ground, a community under a rock…There was a lack of light, a lack of higher purpose to it all. How could she have forgotten to find out what else there was? How could she have stayed there, under her rock, down in the mulch, and forgotten to take a look outside and see what was going on? All at once she didn’t know what she’d been thinking of.”

the yellow house

img_1062 Remembering the Bone House is one of my all-time favorite books.  Nancy Mairs wrote this memoir in 1989.  It was out of print for a while, but then Beacon Press did a new printing in 1995, for which the author wrote a  new preface.  In it, she called this memoir “the dearest of my books to me.”

Although here in this space I try to keep pushing forward with the new books I’m reading, sometimes I like to take a look way in the past at the books I deemed at the time I read them as “all-time favorites.”  I take them off the shelf, blow away the dust, and turn the pages now edged in a rusty color, wondering if they still are.  So far I have not been disappointed.

In Remembering the Bone House, Mairs writes about the different houses she has lived in, as well as about the house she lives in every day–her body, the bone house.  She subtitled the book, An Erotics of Place and Space.  She uses the word erotics in the largest possible sense:  anything to do with her body.  She was forty-five when she wrote the memoir and living with multiple sclerosis.

The last time I read Remembering the Bone House was August of 1996.  I am putting it in my reread pile, which is growing ever larger, and which may eventually match my tower of unread books.  Whenever I get to it, I will report back.

I leave you with her words:

“I will write about the yellow house.  You will read about your house.  If I do my job, the book I write vanishes before your eyes.  I invite you into the house of my past, and the threshold you cross leads you into your own.”

a place for storing years

On my list of top ten all-time favorite books is a book I read in 2000, The Half-Life of Happiness by John Casey.  It’s a novel about a marriage and a family, but I haven’t read it since then and can no longer remember any specifics.  My yellow highlights, which I’ve since given up in favor of whatever pen or pencil I can find at the moment, have faded, almost to the color of the yellowed pages of the novel.  2000 doesn’t seem that long ago, and yet if you think of yourself as being eight years older….

I’ve never read anything else by John Casey, and I’m not sure why.  Checking the internet, it doesn’t appear that he’s had any other books published since 1998, when The Half-Life of Happiness came out.  Spartina, published in 1989, won the National Book Award for that year.  Testimony and Demeanor was originally published in 1979 and reissued in 2005.

“Garden tools, canoe paddles and fishing gear, their daughters’ toys and sports equipment, Joss’ movie gear…the girls’ wardrobes….All these things spilled from closets and racks and chests so that the whole house was a series of partly assembled kits for family happiness.  The house, like their marriage, was a place for storing years that weren’t ever quite what was planned but which he believed might still be made whole by someone turning up with the missing piece.”

The Half-Life of Happiness is going to the top of my reread pile.

light years


Life is weather.
Life is meals.
Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled.
The smell of tobacco.
Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.

James Salter, in one of my all-time favorite books, Light Years.

I met James Salter in Portland in July of 2004, and I asked him why he didn’t write another book on marriage.  Referring to Light Years, he said, “Doesn’t this say it all?”

It is one of my favorite books.  I’ve read it three times.  What he says he says brilliantly and poetically.  But I believe there’s more to say.

first day of fall

September 22, 2008–the autumnal equinox–fall at last.  My favorite season. 

And it felt like fall this morning.  Canada geese flying over.  The first leaves changing color.

It’s no surprise that in two of my all-time favorite books, the authors write of fall.

In Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton wrote of a September day, “The sun is out.  I woke to lovely mists, dew on spider webs everywhere, although the asters look beaten down after the rain and the cosmos pretty well battered.  But these days one begins to look up at the flowering of color in the leaves, so it is easier to bear that the garden flowers are going one by one.”

In Light Years, James Salter wrote, “In the morning the light came in silence.  The house slept.  The air overhead, glittering, infinite, the moist earth beneath–one could taste this earth, its richness, its density, bathe in the air like a stream.  Not a sound….Autumn morning.  The horses in nearby fields are standing motionless.  The pony already has a heavier coat; it seems too soon.”

And then there’s Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth:  “The afternoon was perfect.  A deeper stillness possessed the air, and the glitter of the American autumn was tempered by a haze which diffused the brightness without dulling it.  In the woody hollows of the park there was already a faint chill…” 

That’s what we had in Columbus this morning, a faint chill, presaging the lovely fall days ahead.  Only one hundred days left in the year.  Here they come and there they go.  Catch as many as you can.