March 30, 2011
One of my long-standing favorite novels is Franciso Goldman’s 1992 debut, The Long Night of White Chickens. In dreamy, elegant prose, Goldman tells the story of Flor de Mayo Puac, a Wellesley College graduate who returns to her native Guatemala to run a private orphanage. There she is murdered. The plot pivots on the mystery of her violent death. Even though Goldman spends too much time dwelling on Guatemalan politics, it remains an impressive work.
Nineteen years and three books later, Goldman has written a new novel that takes into account the life of another Latin American woman, Aura Estrada, a promising PhD student at Columbia University. Only Aura isn’t a fictional character, despite the “novel” label given to the book. She’s Goldman’s recently deceased wife. Aura died four years ago from injuries sustained while body surfing in Mexico the summer of 2007. Say Her Name is a “memoir novel” about their four-year relationship, their marriage in the summer of 2005, the tragedy of Aura’s death and Goldman’s paralyzing grief.
From the very beginning of this heart-breaking story, we’re informed of Aura’s death at the age of 30 and the blame cast upon the 50-year-old Goldman (“this is your fault”) by Aura’s protective mother. But we’re not given the full details of the accident just yet. Those come in the end, although the narrative offers hints along the way as the couple’s life together in Brooklyn and Mexico City unfolds. Back and forth in time and place, the narrative wanders flawlessly, with Goldman taking us into scenes of Aura growing up in Mexico with her mother and stepfather and pursuing a scholarly life at a Mexican university and then universities in New York City. We also experience Aura as girlfriend and wife living with Goldman in Brooklyn and then visiting him in dreams and ghost-like illusions after her death.
We come to know a spirited, determined young woman filled with hope and also the talent to become a notable Latin American writer. Her infectious joy and child-like volubility radiate from the narrative, as does her energetic and fun-filled personality. But the narrative always loops back to Goldman’s overwhelming grief, scenes of his emptiness and dread, and a reader’s sadness hovers as we suffer with him knowing what’s to come. When I reached the final pages that would reveal the moments of the tragedy at the beach in Mexico, the month before their second wedding anniversary, a sickening feeling came over me, and I had to walk away from the book for a moment. All that had come before had brought me so close to the author and Aura, I couldn’t bear to live through those horrible last moments of her life, a feeling that testifies to the grip this deeply moving story had on me.
To put in perspective Goldman’s use of fiction and non-fiction, here’s what he said in the book’s press release: “I’ve surrounded Aura and myself with a fictionalized family and friends for numerous reasons, including the duty to protect, to keep secrets, including our own secrets, while providing the space to write a true account of our lives — Aura’s and my own, with and without her.”
Say Her Name surely will stand among the great memoirs in grief literature for its powerful story of love, loss and mourning, next to C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
March 26, 2011
I have a wallet created from a discarded book. It was a gift given to me by a friend who purchased it from a local shop that no longer sells these wallets; however, they’re making belt buckles from books, which, according to shop owner Josh Quinn, sell much better.
This idea of the book as an object for purposes other than reading — notably, art — is the topic of Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art by Garrett Stewart, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press. The descriptions I’ve read all start with the book’s first line and, no wonder. It’s intriguing:
“There they rest, inert, impertinent, in gallery space—those book forms either imitated or mutilated, replicas of reading matter or its vestiges. Strange, after its long and robust career, for the book to take early retirement in a museum, not as rare manuscript but as functionless sculpture. Readymade or constructed, such book shapes are canceled as text when deposited as gallery objects, shut off from their normal reading when not, in some yet more drastic way, dismembered or reassembled.”
The thought of a dismembered book is a big “ouch” for me; however, not so much when I think of a book that was discarded by a library, defiled with the institution’s categorizing mark-ups, or found at a garage sale or junk shop with torn-out or crayoned pages, unwanted by a collector or reader and destined for the shredder. Such likely was the fate of the book that became my wallet (from what I’ve read online). In its compartments, I save money for my book shopping trips — and what a nice second life this is for the once-upon-a-time book, now participating in the collection of other books.
The University of Chicago Press writes: “Bookwork surveys and illustrates a stunning variety of appropriated and fabricated books alike, ranging from hacksawed discards to the giant lead folios of Anselm Kiefer.” If my wallet is a hacksawed discard, then I needed to find out what was meant by a lead folio of Kiefer — I wasn’t familiar with his work — and found this Kiefer sculpture, “Book with Wings,” from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth:
I haven’t had the chance to look inside Bookwork, so I don’t know if the writing is academic, for the everyday reader or somewhere in between. I’m sharing it because its subject grabbed my curiosity and has taken me down some interesting paths, from Anselm Kiefer to a retired professor of art/photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, who wrote a blog post about photographers who photograph books.
Update: Links broken for “Book with Wings,” due to a change in the URL, were fixed 4.25.12.
March 21, 2011
Kirkus Reviews recently posted a list of 2011 Outstanding Debuts between January and June. Most are starred, which for Kirkus means “books of remarkable merit.” But for those without the star, how does one interpret them being outstanding but not remarkable? Hmmmm. You can see the full list of 12 books online. It’s an even six fiction, six non-fiction. Below are two novels from that list, coming up in April, that caught my attention.
In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard
In 1998, Beard published a successful autobiographical essay collection, The Boys of My Youth. It experienced a unique release, selling out its first printing before the book’s publication date. I’m assuming that’s because of pre-orders via online sellers. One of the essays was published in 1996 in The New Yorker, The Fourth State of Matter, and is considered to have launched her upward rise. Now Beard’s much anticipated novel is here, In Zanesville. It’s a coming-of-age story in the 1970s narrated by a 14-year-old heading into her freshman year in high school. Publisher’s Weekly writes, “Beard is a faultless chronicler of the young and hopeful; readers couldn’t ask for a better guide for a trip through the wilds of adolescence.” The location is suppose to represent small-town USA, but I can’t help but think it’s Zanesville, Ohio. I just can’t find confirmation of that.
Guilt by Association by Marcia Clark
I’m having a hard time thinking of Marcia Clark as a novelist because I was glued to the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. She’s a fixed visual in my memory with that cold determination on her face under a mop of curly hair. I realize I’m unfairly engaging in incident identification of a person. (I would struggle similarly if Monica Lewinsky became a romance novelist.) Nevertheless, Kirkus is raving about this debut novel by Clark in such a way it’s hard to think of not reading it. They praise the authenticity of Guilt by Association as well as the quality of writing. Two women are at the forefront of the criminal investigation in the roles of prosecutor and LAPD detective.
March 17, 2011
Here’s an outrageous novel, populated with South Carolina lowcountry losers who go by such colorful names as Pookey Villeponteaux, Earthine Cheatwood and Half-Ass Singletary. They party hard one night, imbibing a mixed drink composed of grain alcohol, grape juice, Kool-Aid, oranges and sugar. It’s the Purple Jesus cocktail, but that’s not the only source for author Ron Cooper’s title: the 24-year-old protagonist Purvis Driggers visits a nearby monastery, and a monk gifts him a wood carving that looks to Purvis like a purple Jesus.
There’s likely symbolism in the carving that I didn’t get, as well as in the Hairy Man, who lurks in and around the area’s woods and swampland. This mysterious creature turns out to be the monastery’s Brother Anthony. He carries a bow and arrow, peeps on baptisms by the Pentecostals in the river and also on that Purple Jesus party. The Hairy Man is closer in character to human foibles than holiness, and I found him to be annoying for his behavior that doesn’t ring true. But then, Cooper isn’t going for a realistic re-creation of life in this wacky novel; he’s aiming for bizarre, which is its own form of realism.
The storyline anchors on Purvis’ pursuit of Martha, a woman who’s returned to the lowland area to be with her 400 pound mother, Ruthie, living in a trailer park. Purvis and Martha cross paths outside Armey Wright’s house where, inside, the guy sits upright at his kitchen table, dead from a gunshot wound. The how and why of their meeting is too much of a twisted plotline to go into here. Suffice it to say, it involves money allegedly hidden in Armey’s home, Martha’s baptism, a swarm of wasps and a side job of driving a propane gas truck. Purvis invites Martha to the Purple Jesus party, and there, that night, she asks him to help her commit a crime. The crime, and all that follows, is outlandish and sometimes gruesome, leading us to Cooper’s inventive conclusion that, yes, involves the Hairy Man.
Without a doubt, the book’s strength is the southern trailer-trash speak. Cooper so authentically captures how these crude, lazy people talk to one another that their senseless troubles and all their stupidity superbly sing on the page. The bantering and empty exchanges are hilarious, and I mean über hilarious. This book is by no means perfect, with its unbelievable helix of incidents and discordant narrative patchwork, but it’s worth reading alone for the howl-out-loud backwoodsy hick talk: “Martha, bring me a beer, shug, and you ain’t got to get me no glass like you do for your mama.”
March 14, 2011
I am not a bird watcher. To be more current, I’m not a birder. The former term was coined in 1901 and then morphed into birdwatcher (one word) and eventually birder. The latter happened in the last decades of the 20th century when our feathered friends became the focus of thousands of humans with binoculars, telescopes and life lists. Add to that electronic alert systems that broadcast rare sightings – usually birds or “vagrants” who’ve drifted out of their common habitat or migration route – and what used to be a casual hobby has become a serious and sophisticated adventure.
My lack of ornithological experience doesn’t keep me from enjoying Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo. Author Michael McCarthy also isn’t a birder, “merely a person,” he writes, and so his captivating narrative about the spring migration of birds, harbingers of warmer weather, doesn’t bog down in scientific detail. Instead, we experience his warmth, insight, fascination and, most of all, wonder about this phenomenal event that he infuses with literary references and engaging stories. Granted, spring migration is a well-studied fact of nature, but it still holds some mystery. How is it these small creatures have the capacity for these epic journeys? How do they know where to go?
Here’s an example of what I mean. The Stilt Sandpiper weighs a mere few ounces and yet it flies at an altitude of 18,000 feet and is able to remain airborne, nonstop, for days in a row. It flies approximately 7,000 miles from its breeding grounds in sub-Arctic Northern Canada to South America, where it spends the winter before returning to Canada in the spring. And get this: when it heads south for winter, it leaves the kids behind because they’re not strong enough for the journey, but when they are strong enough, in a few weeks, they follow the same path as their parents, same fueling stops and all.
I didn’t read about the stilts in McCarthy’s book, but I remember them from another, which is how I got interested in this awesome natural event. When I discovered Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo in an issue of the London Review of Books, I was interested but, considering its British focus – McCarthy writes about the spring migration from South Africa to England — I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as if it were about North American birds. Then the book came to the U.S. via a small publisher, and I’d read so much good about it that I went for it.
England’s birds aren’t all the same as ours – consider the nightingale (a nod to John Keats) — but this epic event that happens every spring remains the same for all migrating birds. It’s in danger, too. Michael McCarthy sends the alert that declines of the spring migration may be at hand. Hence, it’s subtitle, Migratory Birds and the Impending Ecological Catastrophe. But don’t let those environmental textbook sounding words fool you. This is a delightful, accessible book. Not one I’d recommend for everyone, though, only for those who enjoy reading about the mystery of nature or who are birders or birder wannabees. Rachel Carson types, you could say, and anyone who hears the songbirds in the upcoming weeks and wonders where they came from, and why now.
March 9, 2011
I’ve been long in reading the popular debut novel by Deborah Harkness about a spellbound manuscript hidden in Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the witch and vampire involved in its protection. This isn’t a book I normally would select to read, but something in me decided to give it a chance. All that ranting about vampire and zombie mash-ups I’ve done in the past let alone the ditching of Twilight at page 50 in a failed attempt to understand why women were going haywire over Stephenie Meyer’s books hadn’t closed my mind.
Now, I must confess something. These past six months I’ve watched on DVD the seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A friend convinced me to watch the TV series that aired 1997-2003, claiming I’d be addicted come season two. Cleverly, he sent me an article by an NPR journalist stationed in Baghdad that told the story of how the slayer empowered her while she reported from Iraq. The validation worked, and I gave in, complaining about the violence in season one, only to find myself addicted in season two. He was right.
And so I had a visual and emotional reference for vampires that I thought would allow me to enjoy this new vampire fantasy novel. But Deborah Harkness is not Joss Whedon, Buffy’s talented TV creator. Speaking of Whedon, you can read about him in a new book set for May publication from the University Press of Mississippi. It’s part of their Television Conversations Series. Whedon says about his vampire show, “I wanted people to embrace it in a way that exists beyond, ‘Oh, that was a wonderful show about lawyers, let’s have dinner.’”
Reading through the 500+ pages of A Discovery of Witches, about 1,500-year-old vampire Matthew Clairmont and powerful witch Diana Bishop, whose lineage dates back to early Salem witches, I felt no literary embrace. Obviously, from the book’s current best-seller status, many do. The reason isn’t lost on me. I get the intrigue that comes with a spellbound manuscript and the perplexity of why Diana alone owns the key to unbind it. I also get the wonder of forbidden romance between cold-blooded Matthew and warm-blooded Diana that defies an angry congregation of witches, daemons and vampires. And, more than anything else, I get the spice of history that enfolds the story: Latin texts at the Bodleian Library, 14th century knights, a letter from Darwin, alchemical mappings, even the missing manuscript Ashmole 782 that, according to Harkness on her website, actually exists and remains missing.
These are the elements of a dynamic reading adventure, but the fantasy comes to life without great writing. If you’re a demanding reader like me, you’ll drown in a flood of impatience. I read 100 pages or so of A Discovery of Witches and then put it down to read another book. I came back to A Discovery of Witches, but again put it down, exasperated by the elementary descriptions and reactions, dramatic cop-outs and improbable character development, let alone a plot that moved forward by characters talking about incidents instead of being involved in them. I read another book and returned again. When I finally reached the last 100 pages of Diana and Matthew’s richly textured story, I pleaded out loud for Harkness to capture me to the oblivion of all else. It was a plea that recognized while many were enjoying this book, I couldn’t see past the aforementioned, irritating flaws.
That which challenged me most was a lack of belief in Diana as a heroine. She’s a physically fit runner and rower as well as a proud witch who, for most of her life, lived without using her powers of sorcery, so as to be valued for her academic scholarship. Yet when Matthew appears on the scene, she melts into a smitten, needy romantic who throws herself into his arms. She’s constantly fatigued and seeking Matthew’s strength, and while he’s frequently praising her courage, Harkness doesn’t show us courage, she shows us cuddling and wilfulness. In one scene – one of the best in the book – Diana withstands the interrogations and torture of another witch in an abandoned castle in France. It’s not bravery that brings her through, rather the fact (which we find out later) that her mother and father protected her with spells.
A Discovery of Witches takes place in Oxford, England, the French countryside and New York over a remarkable period of 40 days — from the time Matthew and Diana meet, through threatening days populated by vicious witches and vampires lusting after Diana’s power over Ashmole 782, to the Halloween day the couple time-walks out of the present into what will be the next book of this promised trilogy. When that sequel is published, I’ll find a reader who’s caught in the embrace and ask that reader to fill me in on what happens next to Diana and her protective vampire lover. That short conversation will be much preferred to reading what’s likely to be another large volume that will try my patience.
March 4, 2011
I’ve been gravitating to short story collections these first months of 2011, more than usual. A few weeks ago I read Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting (excellent). Next, I have Michael Kardos’ debut collection One Last Good Time on my reading table. I’m more eager to read it than the novels sitting next to it. Perhaps this is a reaction to the doorstopper novel I’m still trying to finish, which by the way has turned into a best-seller since I started it. Well, it involves witches and vampires, so no surprise. I tend to lose my patience with the living dead and so ditched them to read Siobhan Fallon’s debut story collection about army wives. It was an enjoyable respite.
Fallon knows her material from first-hand experience. She’s an army wife whose husband was deployed to Iraq for two tours of duty. She now lives in the Middle East with her soldier husband but previously lived at Fort Hood during the deployments. The Texas army base is the central setting for her stories, a world of 40,000 soldier families living in varying types of housing units under the rules of the base. In an author’s note, Fallon says grass must be mowed before it reaches a certain height.
She allows the base environment to color her stories with just enough detail to illustrate the effect of interminable waiting that comes with being married to a deployed solider. Some wives in the eight stories handle the long, gray nothingness between departure and return stoically; some walk away without warning, ripping from their husbands the emotional anchor they depend on. And then there’s the soldier who’s retained at Fort Hood because his wife is battling cancer. It creates tension his wife cannot share with the other wives. Fallon writes, “John being home made her different from everyone else in a way that even the cancer did not.”
What makes these stories so engaging is they claim neither good nor bad spouses, including the soldier who cheats on his wife in Iraq and the wife who hands her wounded husband separation papers the day after he returns. All the men and women are likeable in this collection because they are ordinary and without malice. It’s one of the many ways these stories are special – they exact overarching compassion and grip us not with blame or an emotional, gut-wrenching twist, rather with a reality revealed.