In Glaciers, the debut novel by Alexis M. Smith, published in 2012 by Tin House Books, Isabel repairs damaged books at the library, specializing in preservation and conservation. “She loves the smell of old things.” She collects postcards. She likes to … Continue reading
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
Christine Schutt Florida debut novel Harcourt/A Harvest Book paperback 2004 On structure echoing content: Nothing then, nothing held its shape but blew away. (52) Dear Alice, you don’t have to tell the whole story. (79) On the structure: 4 parts with … 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
Spring Contrary has sprung… And with a brand new look. Plus five book reviews, one of which is mine on Heather Newton’s debut novel, Under the Mercy Trees:
I once stood at my grandfather’s knee, watching him do tricks with rocks. Later I backpacked by myself in France. I married at twenty, became an attorney in a high-powered Atlanta law firm, then the mother of four. With one friend, I walk and talk; with another, I hike mountains and go to clubs in San Francisco. In Mary Gordon’s novella, The Rest of Life, the old woman Paola searches for the wick running through her life that makes her “the same person who was born, was a child, a girl, a young woman, a woman, and now she is old.”
Bertie, however, one of four point-of-view characters in Heather Newton’s debut novel, Under the Mercy Trees, prefers to focus on the mystery of how different we can be…
Roswell, Georgia, a small city rich in history on the north side of Atlanta, chose Robin Oliveira’s first novel, My Name is Mary Sutter, as their Sixth Annual Roswell Reads Selection. At a reception for Robin Friday night, which included delicious gluten-free cupcakes and lots of conversation about reading, committee members told me they had wanted to choose a book by a woman and also one that touched on the Civil War, this year being the 150th anniversary of its beginning.
The read began in February and all sort of events took place around it, including civil war reenactments, “Follow Your Dream” photography contests, and weekend discussions. Previous selections included Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and Terry Kay’s The Valley of Light.
The Archibald Smith Plantation, the location of the reception, was built around 1845 and is in wonderful condition, the rooms filled with Civil War trunks, slave-made baskets, corn-husk dolls, and two of the first TVs. And more… Apparently there is some value in never getting rid of anything. When the last of the family members died, the house was bequeathed to the housekeeper, Mamie Cotton, who lived in it until she died. True to the period, I had to go outside to the bathroom.
At her talk at a Literary Luncheon on Saturday to over a hundred people, Robin received a standing ovation.
Schenectady County, New York, also chose Robin’s book for their community read, which takes place in April. Robin will speak there on April 9th.
The Winter issue of Contrary is live, and there’s lots to celebrate. First, Writer’s Digest voted Contrary one of the 50 Best Online Literary Markets. Second, my story, “The Empty Armchair,” published in the Autumn 2009 issue, was one of the top ten most viewed pieces for 2010. Thanks to all who clicked over to read it. Third, I’m the new Review Editor for the journal. I had no idea how much I would enjoy editing. Lots of interesting books reviewed in this issue too–Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes; Horse, Flower, Bird by Kate Bernheimer; Voices at the World’s Edge edited by Paddy Bushe; and more…
It’s not unusual for a character in a book to find herself in an unfamiliar place, but what is unusual is for a reader to experience firsthand the sensation of unfamiliarity as she reads about the character. In Susan Froderberg’s début novel, Old Border Road, the reader finds herself in the unfamiliar world of repetition. Repetition—which Froderberg wields like a wand, transforming familiar words into unfamiliar sentences.
Happy New Year to all of you!
The Wake of Forgiveness, the debut novel by Bruce Machart–officially out as of yesterday from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–has a big storyteller narrator who knows how to describe sweeping panoramas and then move seamlessly in for a close-up. We follow an owl for three paragraphs, then zoom down to a man trying to extricate himself from a fence. On the next page, a rider on horseback notices the man by the fence.
The Wake of Forgiveness has a beautiful, symmetrical structure:
- A Winter Harvest: February 1895 (Karel being born)
- Turning the Earth: March 1910 (horse race)
- A Breeding of Nettles; December 1924 (Karel and Sophie and the baby)
- A Sacrament of Animals: March 1910 (Karel and Graciela)
- Meander Scars: May 1898 (the photo of their mother lost)
- The Blind Janus: December 1924 (the baby and the 2 brothers the conflict escalates and the fire)
- Testaments to Seed: March 1910 (Karel and Graciela)
- A Reaping of Smoke and Water: December 1924 (it all comes together)
- A New, Warm Offering: February 1895 (the wet nurse arriving)
But what was most amazing were the sentences–both long:
Alive in Karel’s mind is only a whisper of suspicion, one muted by the astonishing beauty of what he’s seen, and he smiles at the fortune of having borne witness to something so graceful and yet so capable and strong, to a girl turned woman before his eyes, to that woman flashing her white teeth at him, smiling because, for her, as for Karel, there is nothing quite so thrilling as a race run on horseback, nothing filled more with wonder, nothing so able to convince you that you are flesh and blood and alive in the world that offers so few joys other than this running.
The rain needles his good eye, and the sky is dark enough to suggest that the moon has orphaned the heavens.
I heard Bruce read from The Wake of Forgiveness last March in Italy (he was the Sirenland Fellow). On Saturday, he’ll be reading at Cornerstone Books in Salem, MA. The rest of his author tour is online. If you’re in the area, go out and make Bruce welcome. I highly recommend this first novel.
See also this Sunday’s review in the L.A. Times.
A stilt house off the shore of Miami is a wondrous and fragile thing, built against all odds of survival. As is a marriage. Although we know that nothing lasts forever, still we hope that some things will. Stiltsville, the debut novel by Susanna Daniel, is straightforward and unsurprising, and each day that I was reading it, I could not wait to return to it.
There was nothing there but sea and sky, but then a few matchbox shapes formed on the hazy horizon. They grew larger and I saw that they were houses, propped above the water on pilings.
Robin Oliveira was a graduate assistant during my first residency at Vermont College. I met her only months before her first book would be published by Viking.
Mary Sutter is a midwife, and what she wants is clearly stated in dialogue in the first chapter: “I want to become a doctor.” The reader also knows the obstacles at the time of the Civil War: women are not doctors.
My Name is Mary Sutter is 364 pages and fifty-four chapters plus an epilogue. It has a strong female protagonist, lots of characters, and many different points of view. It’s historical fiction with an epic feel to it, and it’s difficult to believe it’s a first novel. It was quickly selected as an Indie Next Great Read and was on Oprah’s Summer Reading list.
The writing is skilled and lyrical. Even with all the different points of view, the reader is never lost. Listen to some of the voices:
From the omniscient voice, a metaphor:
On Amelia’s river of words, everyone was swept down the hallway to the dining room.
The roast was delicious, but unimportant.
From Mary’s brother, Christian, a moment:
He did not know what to say, but instinct kept him there. Between them there was perfect stillness. He did not move, only breathed in silent rhythm with Bonnie’s muffled sobs. Time flickered and then flared, with its peculiar ability to alter perception. In its throes, we enter another life, one of possibility: I will overcome.
From that omniscient voice again, breadth:
The head wounds were hopeless, the abdominal wounds impossible. By then, the thirst and humidity, gunsmoke and cannon powder had rendered everyone slightly mad. It seemed to affect even the air. That’s what would be said for years afterward. Conjured our own weather that night. You remember?
Edinburgh, the first novel by Alexander Chee, is the best book I’ve read so far this year. The subject matter is difficult, but the writing–with its repetitions, its wondrous quality, its innocence–lures the reader forward.
“Blue. Blue because it’s the color people turn in the dark. Because it’s the color of the sky, of the center of the flame, of a diamond hit by an X ray. Blue is the knife edge of lightning. Blue is the color, a rose grower tells you, that a rose never quite reaches.”
The book is structured in four sections. The story is Fee’s, but his story goes deeper and wider with Chee’s decision to cede the narration to Warden in one of the sections:
- I: Songs of the Fireflies (Fee)
- II: January’s Cathedral (Fee)
- III: And Night’s Black Sheep Upon the Eyes (Warden)
- IV: Blue (Fee)
In its 3-page Prologue, Chee writes so simply:
“This is a fox story. Of how a fox can be a boy. And so it is also the story of a fire.”
Throughout the novel, these images recur : voice, death, monsters, pictures, foxes, fire, blue, storytelling, singing, and water.
“On the pages in front of me, the words dissolve a bit, the letters thinning until I can see, on the other side of them, like spying through a wire fence, the pictures of Peter I have collected inside of me…”
Edinburgh was published in 2001.
As a plane heads down a runway, a stranger reaches for the Narrator’s hand. “Here comes the dangerous part,” he says. Not terribly subtle, but such layering makes a story feel alive. Love in Mid Air, the debut novel by Kim Wright, is rich in “shadow truth” as Charles Baxter refers to subtext. “What is displayed evokes what is not displayed.”
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.”
At the beginning of The Vagrants, the first novel by Yiyun Li, one at a time, each of the main characters comes into contact with one of the notices being posted all over the Chinese town of Muddy Waters announcing the execution and denunciation of a counterrevolutionary. The characters revolve around these notices like the spokes of a wheel.
The next layer involves each of the characters in scene with another character. Because we have met them all, we often recognize the character entering the scene before the character does who is already there. This technique involves the reader in the story. It connects us to the characters. We become a part of the inner circle. These interactions continue to occur to build the story, which gradually opens wider and wider.
By allowing us to see each character through the many different eyes of the other characters, readers come to know the characters in all their strengths and weaknesses. We love them despite.
Teacher Gu and Mrs. Gu, Tong, Nini, Bashi, Kai, the Huas–this is a character-rich novel. It is quiet and measured despite its political subject matter, and despite the evil forces at work in the world…
“The wheel of life, with its ruthless revolving, could be merciful at times.”
“The first days of April were windy and warm. White clouds trailed across the blue sky. In the wind there was the smell of the river and also the fresher smell of fields beyond the town.”
from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia. Her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940, when she was just 23 years old.
I first read this novel in high school and didn’t particularly like it. I’ve read it three times since then, amazed at the genius of the character of the deaf mute, the many threads of the theme of loneliness, and the depth of the writing. Amazed that it was a first novel. Amazed that it could have been written by a 23-year-old.
McCullers’ childhood home is located about fifteen minutes from where I live. We’ve had a lot of rain in these early days of April 2009, sixty-nine years after she wrote these words: “The sound of the rain was like the swelling sound of the sea.”
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.
In July, I read Arlington Park and discovered a writer new to me–Rachel Cusk. She was born in Canada in 1967, grew up in Los Angeles, and now lives in England. Arlington Park is her most recent novel. Although I thought it was slightly brusque in its movement between characters and slightly haphazard in its structure, I also thought the writing was outstanding. Upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to read it again. Instead I decided to read all her books in chronological order.
It’s like watching a house being built–seeing how a writer develops over time.
The foundation: Saving Agnes, published in 1993. It won the Whitbread First Novel Award (now the Costa First Novel Award). I started it the first week of September. It’s kind of chick-litty in subject matter, but after all the author would have been 26 when it was published. It also seems to take the author too many words to say what she has to say.
Nevertheless it’s a great beginning for a writer, and it contains some engaging images, like “a row of teenagers sat on a bench like crows on a telegraph wire,” and ”Days when she was expecting a call stretched out before her like empty motorways….”
It also contains some interesting lines like “She’d never known loneliness until she’d had company.” And this combination of an intriguing idea and an image to match: “She had changed, she knew, but she didn’t quite know how or when. Like an old car, the addition of new parts over the years had left little of her original material, but her form remained unaltered. Could she, she wondered, still be said to be the same person?”
More tomorrow on the framing…
The short list for the Booker Prize was announced yesterday. Six novels were chosen from the long list of thirteen. Of the six, two are first novels! Only one was written by a woman. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet read any of these. The short list is as follows:
Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (Atlantic)
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)
For more information, check out the website:
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes of schedules as nets for “catching days.” She says, “I have been looking into schedules.” Then she describes the schedule of a Danish aristocrat living a hundred years ago, who started his day by getting out of bed at four to hunt grouse, woodcock and snipe. Wallace Stevens in his forties woke at six to read for two hours. I long to be an early riser. Yet, on most days, it takes an alarm to pull me out of bed at seven.
Annie Dillard also writes, “There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by…a life spent reading–that is a good life.” Today I’m reading Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk. It was the 1993 Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award. Unfortunately the Whitbread Awards have gone the way of stadiums and are now referred to as the Costa Book Awards, as in the coffee.
That is something I’m aspiring to, by the way. A first novel. More specifically, a published first novel.
But back to Saving Agnes, so far my favorite moment is when Agnes is talking to her friend Greta about a weird man, which sends Agnes into her head–one of my favorite places for a character to be. Agnes thinks, “There was another world beneath the surface of the one she chose each day, a dark labyrinth of untrodden paths. Its proximity frightened her. She wondered if she would ever lose her way and wander into it.”
I spend so much time in my head. The trick, it seems, is how to push what’s in there to the surface.