April 26, 2010
The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation recently announced the 2010 fellows in categories for creative arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Thirteen fiction writers are among the 180 recipients. They’ll now be able to mention in the bios on their book dust jackets that they’re a Guggenheim Fellow. But what does that tell their readers?
The Foundation’s website defines recipients as advanced professionals, which means, for writers, having “a significant record of publication.” That says to me these authors already have a backlist of good books. But it’s not just past accomplishment that snags these prestigious grants. Exceptional promise for future work is also part of the mix. That means we should take note when we see new books published by these authors.
Below are the 13 and their recent works of fiction. If I found an author’s website, I listed that. Oherwise, I listed the publisher’s web page about the author. From my reading past, I can safely shout out about Lorraine Adams, Ethan Canin, Anthony Doerr, Colum McCann and Nell Freudenberger. Christine Schutt’s Florida is a book I regretfully missed when it first came out; it was a National Book Award finalist in 2004. I’ve purchased Tinkers and Driftless.
Lorraine Adams, The Room and the Chair
Ethan Canin, America, America
Anthony Doerr, Memory Wall
(Memory Wall is a story collection to be published July 2010.)
Nell Freudenberger, The Dissident
Paul Harding, Tinkers
(Winner of this year’s Pulitzer in fiction)
Victor LaValle, Big Machine
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
Philipp Meyer, American Rust
Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
David Rhodes, Driftless
Christine Schutt, All Souls
Salvatore Scibona, The End
Monique Truong, Bitter in the Mouth
(Bitter in the Mouth is to be published August 2010.)
April 22, 2010
Recommending a disturbing novel is tricky. Even if it is beautifully written and psychologically on the mark, it’s not easy to drive a reader toward excellence that may offend, disgust or horrify. For Hotel Iris, I’ll ring the bell of caution upfront. This is exquisite, spare storytelling at its most powerful, and at the center is a sadomasochistic relationship between a 17-year-old girl and a Russian translator in his 60s. Their intimate scenes are shocking and brutal.
The Hotel Iris offers run-down accommodations at a seaside resort in Japan. Here the beautiful 17-year-old Mari, the novel’s repressed narrator, manages the front desk under the watch of her scolding mother. One night, a whore runs from a guest room, shouting at the translator, who shouts back, commanding the woman to be silent. Mari describes his beautiful voice giving an order as “almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or horn.”
Two weeks later, she sees the translator while doing her mother’s shopping and follows him. We feel her seeking him out, this mysterious, timid man who wears an immaculate wool suit even on the hottest days. He realizes Mari is following him and questions her. This nameless translator is kind and gentlemanly to Mari and after this first meeting, writes her letters. She is smitten by the careful attention he gives her. In the privacy of his home, that attention becomes sexual and rules her into submission. In perverted physical intimacy, they fulfill each others needs of humiliation (Mari) and domination (the translator). Neither is a victim, both willing and desiring, both sad at their partings.
Yoko Ogawa allows early on in the story for us to recognize Mari’s pleasure in pain as a craving rooted in her self-hate originating from her mother’s contempt and her father’s absence. For most of the book, though, we don’t know why the shy translator becomes cruel in intimacy until Ogawa reveals how he lost his wife in a tragic accident. The puzzle piece drops into place, and exceptionally I might add, for Ogawa doesn’t state the answer. We are given the information to draw the conclusion ourselves, so we more effectively fathom the translator’s behavior.
Disturbing, yes, but Ogawa writes Hotel Iris in pristine prose that by its coaxing simplicity compels us to enter the dark other world. Even so, on the threshold of the intimate scenes, I hesitated, and then ultimately moved forward secure in Ogawa’s talent and compassion. Her insight into human behavior is acute and without compromise.
Ogawa is a popular author in her native Japan, where her books have won that country’s most prestigious literary awards. Hotel Iris and two others (among her 22 books) have been translated into English by Stephen Snyder, professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College. The Housekeeper and the Professor was mentioned on TLC last year. It, too, tells a moving story of an unlikely relationship.
April 17, 2010
Scott Bradfield’s new novel starts with a three-year-old girl being taken from her home by the water heater repair man. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a creepy abduction story. It’s far from it. Salome Jensen’s situation is more commentary than plot. She’s being set loose into the world, freed from parents and school, to live each day being herself and not someone’s idea of her.
Sal is separated from the repair man she calls Daddy, and we follow her journey that has her living in Laundromats and with people who take up lost causes. She even spends time in the desert, talking to a coyote. Put that way, Sal’s story sounds silly, yet this short novel is filled with wisdom. Bradfield’s humorously erudite take on modern American life so overwhelmed me with memorable goodies, I grabbed a pencil and began underlining. For example, this: “Sugar is for kids who never figure out what’s going on.”
And this, when a store clerk who lives with his grandmother asks Sal to marry him (she’s four) and explains, “I just want you to spiritually develop along lines that are appropriate to my personal lifestyle agendas.”
It took several pages into the book for me to understand Bradfield’s intent. The light bulb went on when I stopped seeing Sal as a vulnerable little girl and became an observing, detached person who watched her pass by. Then I enjoyed this quirky story immensely, with all its strange and provocative perspectives on the way we live. I regarded Sal as Daddy sees her, “a perfect, beautiful little child with a fresh perspective on this sorry world of ours. And it’s precisely this sort of fresh perspective which may yet save us all from total eco-catastrophe and self-annihilation.”
Eventually Sal re-enters “normal” life, aided by a Child Welfare Service agent. He counsels the itinerant and removed Sal to settle down and form bonds with people, “or else you pass from earth without a trace.” She tries, but she struggles with a restless yearning in her heart and soul, which experienced untainted awareness on her journey and a deeper self-reality. We struggle with her, recognizing Sal’s return is not the answer, yet neither is continued wandering.
April 14, 2010
You can spot the book collectors at an author’s reading. They’re the ones carrying not just one or two but a stack of books to be signed. At last night’s poetry reading by Mary Oliver in Cleveland, my friend LS and I were the only two with those stacks, and Ms. Oliver’s efficient handler didn’t appreciate them. When I approached the signing table, she grimaced and barked a firm NO at the sight of my handful and instructed “only two.” (I handed over three.) She wouldn’t allow me to take a photo, either, so what you see here is Mary Oliver in a 2008 magazine article taped to my office bookshelf.
Such was the tone for this event, a show handled well. It took place in downtown Cleveland’s Ohio Theatre Playhouse Square. I must admit, I was surprised to see such a crowd for a poetry reading; however, it was Mary Oliver, a very accessible poet who through the ages has spoken to many about life’s meaning and beauty, asking urgent questions in her poems, such as, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” Indeed, the young man introducing Ms. Oliver described her work as accessible, poignant and transformational, teaching us to slow down and make decisions with greater care.
I also was surprised by Mary Oliver’s humor. This was not the inspirational Mary Oliver whose poems I’d read all these years, a humble poet who never gave interviews, letting her work stand for whatever needed to be said. This was not the contemplative poet who through her poems speaks thoughtfully, reverentially, spiritually about our connection to nature, lifting our weaknesses into light. Instead, Mary Oliver at the podium was a delightful, funny woman entertaining us. She was downright jocular. Her salty, endearing, unorganized self kept the crowd laughing ,and then she’d read a poem and they’d sigh. Or maybe they’d laugh again.
Yes, it was all very entertaining, but who is Mary Oliver? Why is she, in her 70s, on the road and funny at the podium? All that humor cadenced between the reading of random poems unsettled me. I wanted to experience her passion. I wanted to hear her story. She told little about herself that would provide context for her poems, such as growing up in Maple Heights, Ohio, or living her adult years by the ocean in Provincetown, Mass.
During the question and answer period — questions asked about her writing and life — she remarked, “Doesn’t anyone have funny questions?” And so we got them. “Do you have a sweet tooth? What do you wear on your feet during your strolls?” When asked what books she read as a child, she quipped, “I’m still a child.” Everyone loved that. It allowed her then to answer, “Harry Potter.” Everyone loved that, too, and while I laughed right along, I yearned for the real answer.
“What does it mean that the world is beautiful?” someone asked. Ms. Oliver replied loosely, saying, essentially,that it means everything. I just wish the in-depth answer had been more present last night, elaborate and giving as I have known that answer to be in her books on my bookshelf, three of them now signed.
April 9, 2010
Reading Table, make room! My fav Alan Furst has a new espionage novel coming out in June. Also that month, the hilarious Sloane Crosley publishes a new collection of essays. Here’s some info on these and other books on my radar screen.
Innocent by Scott Turow
This is a sequel to Turow’s 1987 best-selling legal thriller, Presumed Innocent. It takes place 22 years later with lawyer Rusty Sabich once again suspected of murder and prosecutor Tommy Molto going after him. Publisher’s Weekly says Innocent is told with “mesmerizing prose and intricate plotting.” According to The New York Times, Presumed Innocent sold close to four million copies in the U.S. alone. I’d bet fingers are crossed for the sequel to do the same. (May)
Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann
Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, purchased and edited this “underground favorite” originally self-published in 2003. According to the publisher’s website, the novel “follows its protagonist, Eveline Auerbach, as she moves through a pre-digital American landscape during the 1970s and 1980s. In the most basic respect, it is a coming of age story that prescribes a return to simplicity as the most rational and ethical response to the chaos and confusion of upward mobility.” (May)
The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg
Translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray
This is Läckberg’s U.S debut. I’ve got my eye on it for its promising forecasts and also because I’m interested in literature from Sweden (thanks to Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit). Last year, when The Ice Princess came out in paperback/English in Europe, the Guardian Bookshop wrote: “When she decides to write a memoir for her dead friend, Erica Falck uncovers dark secrets about their small home town. Features the popular detective Patrick Hedstrom: all 4 previous novels featuring him have been number 1 bestsellers in [Lackberg’s] native Sweden.” (May)
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selena Hastings
I’m intrigued by this 640 page biography because it includes new material from Maugham’s personal correspondence and newly uncovered interviews with Maugham’s only child. According to Publisher’s Weekly, “…the facts of Maugham’s life form a fascinating narrative because they are full of public incident and accomplishment, shadowed by privately known and whispered secrets.” Maugham’s semi-autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage is one of my favorites, especially for its concept of the Persian carpet and life’s meaning. (May)
How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley
Crosley’s debut I Thought There’d Be Cake was hilarious, and I’m anticipating the same from this new collection of personal essays. Adventures in Alaska, Lisbon and Paris are part of the mix. According to Kirkus Reviews: “Most of the book is funny, some of it even laugh-out-loud, but her literary gifts go well beyond easy laughs.” If you’re on Facebook, you can read the full review on the wall of her fan page. (June)
Letters to a Young Madman by Paul Gruchow
Gruchow’s new book is a departure from his usual writings about rural life and the human connection to the natural world. According to the book’s description, the prose pieces delve into Gruchow’s struggle with depression and the many diagnoses and treatments that came with it throughout his adult life. These pieces were gathered prior to his death in 2004. From the book’s description: “Unsparingly dark and yet ultimately illuminating, Letters to a Young Madman offers perhaps the most insightful and honest dialogue with madness since William Styron’s Darkness Visible.” (June)
Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst
A new novel by this master of World War II espionage set in Greece during 1940. I’m a Furst fan and anticipate this to be another smart page-turner. From the publisher’s website: “At the center of this drama is Costa Zannis, a senior police official, head of an office that handles special ‘political’ cases. As war approaches, the spies begin to circle, from the Turkish legation to the German secret service. There’s a British travel writer, a Bulgarian undertaker, and more. Costa Zannis must deal with them all. And he is soon in the game, securing an escape route—from Berlin to Salonika, and then to a tenuous safety in Turkey, a route protected by German lawyers, Balkan detectives, and Hungarian gangsters. And hunted by the Gestapo.” (June)
April 6, 2010
I like stories about unsung heroes who win the spotlight. In the book world, that would be the literary authors and poets who persistently produce exquisite work that typically falls into the remainder bins and obscurity but then, finally, gets big recognition. Such success happened for Christopher Reid, author of A Scattering. The poetry collection had sold less than 1,000 copies when it won the 2009 Costa Book Award in Britain. This was not a poetry award — A Scattering won Costa’s “book of the year” award. Rarely does poetry trump fiction.
Several weeks ago on TLC, I complained about spending money on poetry collections that ended up unread on my bookshelf, due to a poor fit with what I like to read in poetry. A Scattering shortly after came to my attention, a deeply satisfying discovery. Dedicated to Reid’s wife, Lucinda, the poems mourn her death in 2005. It’s not a plaintive collection of elegiac sadness, rather an admirable rendering of loss and grief.
A Scattering is told in four sequences that begin with a vacation in Crete, when they are aware of her illness, and then Lucinda’s time in hospice, Reid’s identity as a widow and finally reflections about “Lucinda’s Way.” Reid speaks to his wife in these verses, processing his experience. One cannot help but be drawn into this profoundly moving intimacy.
Having had the good fortune to live in the roman fleuve
of your life, my darling,
playing no small part, but — that’s not my name on the cover –
second always to you, the dashing heroine,
I have hesitated, havered too long, to compose
this necessary footnote.
You would have understood why.
(Read the rest of the poem here.)
BTW, a reminder that April is National Poetry Month. It’s a good time to support these heroes of literature. Regarding A Scattering, I don’t see evidence of U.S. publication; however, you can read more about the book on The Guardian’s website and purchase it from their bookshop, or from dealers on AbeBooks.com.
April 1, 2010
Here is something beautiful to look at and intriguing to consider. London-based data artist and book designer Stefanie Posavec visually represents the patterns and rhythms of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. She dissects, maps and color codes Part One’s chapters, paragraphs, sentences and words into a blooming diagram called “Literary Organism.”
Via the website Notcot: “meticulous scouring the surface of the text, highlighting and noting sentence length, prosody and themes, Posavec’s approach to the text is not unlike that of a surveyor.”
Below is On the Road Chapter 10.
This image doesn’t come near the exquisite detail of that “meticulous scouring.” You can see it and the rest of the image better at Notcot — scroll down Notcot’s page for “high res glory.” You’ll also find in high resolution Posavec’s additional interpretations that include:
- visualizations of rhythm textures of selected On the Road quotes
- sentence length organized by word per sentence
- sentence drawings of the novel
Below is Stefanie Posavec’s working copy of On the Road.
Posavec’s website contains further explanations and more of her work that’s all part of her project Writing Without Words. For example, she diagrams the writing styles of various authors from first chapters of their books: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, to name a few. Posavec says this about her First Chapter drawings:
“The more tightly wound the drawing means a shorter, choppier flow of sentences was used, while a larger drawing represents a writing style that utilises long, flowing sentences.”
Below is George Orwell’s “choppier” 1984 First Chapter.
Thanks to Dave C. who directed me via Facebook to author David McCandless’ Information is Beautiful website. From there I went down the rabbit hole and discovered all the above.