Examining a Passage from The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch 

I posted earlier on the brilliant, beautiful novel The Goldfinch.  I had to do so in broad swaths, given how dense in character and plot the novel is, just to give you a taste of it. But now I want to go back and drill down on just one passage, to analyze what makes the writing—to me, at least—so marvelous. There are so many paragraphs I could choose, but I was particularly taken with the following description of how Hobie, the furniture restorer who takes in the young, homeless Theo, trains him in the art and craft of fine furniture repair.

As you read the passage, make a mental note of how you respond to it, and what you notice in particular (There will be a test . . .).

Auction houses all over the city called him, as well as private clients; he restored furniture for Sotheby’s, for Christie’s, for Tepper, for Doyle. After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents—”sometimes, when you’re not sure what you have, it’s easiest just to take a sniff”—spicy mahogany, dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood. Saws and counter-sinks, rasps and rifflers, bent blades and spoon blades, braces and mitre-blocks. I learned about veneers and gilding, what a mortise and tenon was, the difference between ebonized wood and true ebony, between Newport and Connecticut and Philadelphia crest rails, how the blocky design and close-cropped top of one Chippendale bureau rendered it inferior to another bracket-foot of the same vintage with its fluted quarter columns and what he liked to call the “exalted” proportions of the drawer ratio.

Okay, Students! How did you respond to this passage? What was the first thing that struck you?  Did you like it, dislike it, love it, indifferent, irritated, what?

I wish we were sitting around a circle and I could hear your answers, which I’m sure will be much more interesting than mine!  And different.  You’ll just have to let me know.

Meanwhile, I’ll give you my take.

The first thing that strikes me is how much Donna Tartt knows about furniture restoration! She’s done her homework, boys and girls. She’s the smartest girl in the class. And it pays off. What authority this passage contains! It absolutely convinces us that the world she’s creating is real, solid, and authentic. We trust that she knows of which she speaks, so we can give ourselves over to the story completely. Surely she researched these esoteric details with someone extraordinarily versed in furniture restoration. Did she takes notes? No doubt. But I’ll wager the best note-taker in the world couldn’t transform mere research into this sterling passage of prose.

Beyond authority, what strikes me the most here is how sensitive and skillful she is in terms of language itself: words, the sounds they make, how they join together into sentences that create rhythm and meaning.  Most of all, her words awaken our senses. Here, words give us the deep pleasure that only our senses can provide. It’s quite a paradox. Most of the time in our so-called real lives, our senses are on pause, slumbering, acclimated to the quotidian. But when we read a passage like this, loaded with extraordinarily precise, sensory detail, our senses wake up and really pay attention, pulling our whole mind into the act. Continue reading “Examining a Passage from The Goldfinch”

The Goldfinch: A Brilliant, Beautiful Novel

The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch

A friend and I were talking about hyperbole in book blurbs and reviews the other day (I confess I don’t mind a little hyperbole concerning my books).  He told me about Rich Bass’s blurb on the back cover of Cold Mountain when it came out: “It seems possible to never want to read another book, so wonderful is this one.”

I’m not willing to go that far. But after Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, I suspect it will be a long time before I read another novel that is as brilliant and beautiful as this one.

The Goldfinch is huge in many ways. For starters, it’s long: 771 pages. So if you’re not up for the long haul, step aside

In addition, it’s “wordy.” Full of fulsome descriptions. If you like a clean, simple, cut-to-the-chase style, Finch is not for you.

If you’re not that interested in highly elaborate (but accessible) discussions of art, furniture restoration, what it feels like to be high or in love, to be terrorized, to be saved, to be lost, to be found, to be good, to be bad, to be human–go elsewhere.

But if you want to have a reading experience that may make you wonder if you’ll ever want to read another novel, I recommend The Goldfinch.

Why is it so great?  You’re entitled to ask.

Let me count the ways.

I give it the highest marks—over the top—for its brilliant characterization; its brilliant sense of place (Manhattan, Las Vegas, Amsterdam); its brilliant plot (quite Dickensian, with one damn thing right after another!); its brilliant description. Most of all the brilliant mind that conceived of and executed this book. How can one person know so much? Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I can’t begin to capture its brilliance here (not being brilliant myself).  Let me just say that this was a book where I wished I could quote every line for you.  Ever single line of 771 pages, and you wouldn’t be disappointed by a single one.

Here’s what’s at the heart of this big book: a small painting, “the smallest in the exhibition, and the simplest: a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”goldfinch painting

Theo, the book’s extraordinary narrator, rescues this painting, a 17th century Dutch masterpiece, from the destruction caused by a terrorist bomb in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills his mother and nearly him when he’s thirteen. Follow this painting all through the novel. It will animate the highly suspenseful plot, but beyond that, it is the overarching vehicle for all this ambitious book takes on: love, loss, longing, obsession, friendship, and the power of art itself. In the process, The Goldfinch contains some of the most vividly detailed writing and richly drawn characters and relationships you’ll encounter in contemporary literature.

Let me introduce you to some of the memorable players:

There’s Andy, who becomes Theo’s best friend in grade school when they both skip ahead a grade because of high test scores: ” . . .poor Andy had always been a chronically picked-upon kid: scrawny, twitchy, lactose-intolerant, with skin so pale it was almost transparent, and a penchant for throwing out words like ‘noxious’ and ‘chthonic’ in casual conversation.”

There’s Boris, the irrepressible, survival-savyy Ukrainian waif who befriends Theo when they’re schoolboys in Las Vegas, and who reappears to play a crucial role in Theo’s adult life in New York. “Boris . . . Long-haired, narrow-chested, weedy and thin, he was Yul Brynner’s exact opposite in most respects and yet there was also an odd familial resemblance: they had the same sly, watchful quality, amused and a bit cruel, something Mongol or Tartar in the slant of the eyes.”

There’s Hobie, a loveable, dreamy, old-world, artisanal furniture restorer who takes in the lost Theo and nurtures him, teaches him, and loves him. “Though I [Theo] sometimes worked down in the basement with Hobie for six or seven hours at a time, barely a word spoken, I never felt lonely in the beam of his attention: that an adult not my mother could be so sympathetic and attuned, so fully there, astonished me.” Continue reading “The Goldfinch: A Brilliant, Beautiful Novel”

The Silent Wife: A Fascinating Novel Both Psychologically and Technically

The Silent Wife I first became interested in The Silent Wife in when I read an August 4th, 2013  piece in The New York Times. The article described how the novel—a “sleeper,” written by an “unknown” Toronto writer and released as a paperback original (as opposed to a hardcover, which signals the publisher intends to push the book)–had vaulted its way onto The New York Times best-seller list. The book received some crucial attention from a handful of reviewers, and caught on via word of mouth.

I read that the author, A.S. A. Harrison, had died of cancer at 65, a few weeks before The Silent Wife was published. She was aware that numerous other countries had bought publishing rights and she knew the book was getting wonderful endorsements from other authors. It is sad to think that she didn’t live to see her novel receive the acclaim that it has garnered. But I imagine she knew how good the book is. You can’t write a novel this accomplished without knowing it.

The Silent Wife has been compared to Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. It covers similar territory, a “dark, psychological thriller about a broken marriage,” as the Times described it.  Like Gone Girl, it’s told in alternating “Him” and “Her” chapters. I only got 100 pages into Gone Girl before I put it down. I saw Gillian Flynn speak at the Key West Literary Seminar this year (on “The Dark Side: Mysteries, Crime and the Literary Thriller”). She was very bright, and articulate in her defense of writing “bad women,” women who can be evil, mean, bad, or selfish–though honestly, plenty of other authors since time immemorial have plowed that ground. I found Gone Girl smart and well-written, but it just didn’t interest me. I wonder if it has something to do with age. Flynn is in her forties (and looks about thirty) and Harrison was 65, having worked on The Silent Wife for ten years. Or maybe my preference for SW had to do with GG being written in first person, and SW in third, with a knowing, authoritative narrative voice, which interested me technically (more on this in a moment).  For whatever reasons, I found The Silent Wife far more fascinating and accomplished, and more mature, than what I read of Gone Girl.

photo by Harrison's husband John Massey
photo by Harrison’s husband John Massey

Susan Angela Ann Harrison (she used initials to disguise her gender) had previously written a porn novel with the artist AA Bronson which was quickly banned when it was published in 1970.  Her 1974 book, Orgasms, was a series of interviews with women speaking frankly about their sexual climaxes. (In my commitment to researching an author thoroughly (wink), I tried to order Orgasms  but alas, it’s out of print.)  Harrison collaborated on two other non-fiction books, one about striptease, experimenting with it herself, and another involving case studies in psychotherapy titled Changing the Mind, Healing the Body. She also wrote Zodicat Speaks, a guide to feline astrology.  Her friend, the author Susan Swan, said of Harrison, “She deconstructed prettiness.  She wanted to be larger than life, and she was.”  Swan’s daughter, Samantha Haywood, a neophyte agent, took her on as a client in 2004.  For the next decade, Harrison’s work was repeatedly rejected. But she kept at it, telling herself to “write better, Susan,” and donning industrial earmuffs to keep out noise.

What’s not to love—and admire—about her!

I was captivated by The Silent Wife from the opening paragraphs.

It begins:

 It’s early September. Jodi Brett is in her kitchen, making dinner. Thanks to the open plan of the condo, she has an unobstructed view through the living room to its east-facing windows and beyond to a vista of lake and sky, cast by the evening light in a uniform blue.  A thinly drawn line of a darker hue, the horizon, appears very near at hand, almost touchable. She likes this delineating arc, the feeling it gives her of being encircled. The sense of containment is what she loves most about living here, in her aerie on the twenty-seventh floor.

Notice how we’re placed inside the point of view of the character, Jodi, but there is also a narrative voice that is beginning to describe her psychologically.  Certain words—”encircled,” “containment”—seem suggestive of more than the physical landscape.  There is a distance in the narration, created partly by the use of her full name, as opposed to just “Jodi is in her kitchen . . .”  We hear a voice that is not Jodi’s but the narrator’s, who is taking care to select the precise details to begin to build not only the external world but Jodi’s interior one. Continue reading “The Silent Wife: A Fascinating Novel Both Psychologically and Technically”

THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION Wins Kindle Book Review’s 2013 Best Indie Book Award in Suspense Category

“And next, The Kindle Book Review’s Best Indie Book of 2013 in the Suspense Category goes to . . . THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION, by Paulette Alden!”

Little old moi won?!
Little old moi won?!

I jerk awake when I hear my name. I had dropped off during the announcement of other awards— “Best Indie Logo that Doesn’t Involve An Animal”; “Best Indie Absolute-Last-in this-Series–I Promise!”; “Best Indie Thriller In Which No One Gets Killed”; “Best Indie Romance In Which No One Gets Laid . . .”

“Did they say me?” I frantically ask my husband sitting next to me. “Did I win?  Can it be? Little old moi?”

“Go get it, girl! You won!” he says, hoisting me to my feet.

I had slipped off my shoes (damn stilettos!) and now they were hopelessly lost under my seat.  I scramble bare-footed towards the stage, startled and thrilled, hiking the bodice of my strapless dress over my scant bosom, hoping the thing won’t fall down (the bodice, not my bosom).

Gown: Goodwill;  Hair: Great Clips;  Jewelry: Walgreens . . .

“Ohmygod!”  I exclaim as Jeff Bennington hands me the award.

Accepting the Award from Jeff B
Accepting the Award from Jeff B

“Ohmygod! I can’t believe I won!” I yammer.  “Thank you, Jeff!  I didn’t expect to win!  I didn’t even prepare a speech!” (except what I wrote up and down my arms . . .50 shades of Sarah Palin.)  “This is so great! And so, so deserved!” Fanning myself.  Deep breath.  Wow . . .

“Where to start?  I want to thank my publisher, Radiator Press, who took a chance on me when no one else would (take that, Knopf!).  I want to thank my husband, the other Jeff, who stood by me through my long journey from Reluctant Self-Publisher through Obnoxious Self-Promoter to arrive at this glorious moment, when I morph into the Insufferable Self-Congratulator.  I want to thank the readers who actually read the book, not just skimmed it, who told me they loved it (even if they lied), and especially those who wrote reviews on Amazon when I groveled for them.  Keep those reviews a’coming, folks, I’m not at my goal of 205 yet!  205, 205, 205 . . .

Anaway, I most def want to thank Jeff Bennington of  The Kindle Book Review for conceiving of and birthing this award for Indie Authors.  So great of you, Jeff!  I want to thank the sponsors of the award for supporting the winners with great promotion prizes: The Kindle Book Review; Digital Book Today; World Literary Cafe; Kindle Boards; Author Marketing Club; Kindle Nation Daily; Free-Bookz.com.  These are THE sites to go to for free and bargain books, run by folks who tirelessly boost authors by getting the word out about our books.  Love you guys!  I want to thank Stephen and Caleb at Venturegalleries.com for featuring my dream interview and dream review.  See you over a glass of bourbon on Pawley’s Island, Caleb . . .

“Furthermore, I want to thank . . . Hey! Why is that bell going off?”  Get the hook, someone is whispering furiously back stage.  “Wait! I’m not finished! Thank you, Mama, thank you, Daddy, . . .thank you, Murphy. . . than . . . Ouch!  That hurts!”

I wuv you!
I wuv you!

Later, at the gala winners’ post-awards party:

Elizabeth Gilbert comes up to me.  She looks stunning!  “Paulette,” she confides wistfully, “I wish I had published Indie.  Then maybe I could have won one of these awards.”

“Oh Liz,” I say gently.  “Your time will come. Just hang in there.”

And look, here’s Stephen King.  “Hey, if you’re not doing anything later,” he says, “I’m taking a little trip to the Underworld.  Care to join me?”

“Ummm, I’m not sure,” I say.  “I might have to be somewhere–like home.”

“Aw come on!  Be there or be square!  What are you worried about? It’s just Hell!”

Just then Bill Polad taps me on the shoulder: “You haven’t signed with another studio yet, have you?  I can see it already  . . .” He frames his hands to form a movie screen. “We’ll open with that knock on Inga’s door . . . Inga . . .Sandra Bullock!  Whadda ya think?  Jean is a toughie.  We need an unknown, a nobody.  Somebody’s babysitter.  How ’bout Zac Efron for Ben . . or maybe Robert Pattinson . . .

“Okay,”  I say. “Have your people talk to my people.”

Dave Eggers interrupts to ask me shyly if he can be my friend on Facebook.  “Twitter, too,” I say magnanimously.

Oh! there’s Geoff Dyer!  Be still my heart.  He takes his time but finally sidles over, all seven and a half feet of him.  “Is what I hear via the literary grapevine true?” he asks in his sexy, British accent. “That you have a . . . thing . . . for me?”

“Maybe,” I say, not wanting to give too much away. Keep him guessing.

Just then J. K. Rawlings draws me aside and pats me on the head.  “I think you have a real knack for fantasy, kid,” she says, “especially if you’re imagining me giving you a pat on the head.”

Oh it was a glorious evening!

Hey, I like winning!  I want to win something else . . .

Where I can buy a lottery ticket?

(Did I mention I won ?) KBR-Contest-WINNER


Awards ceremony photo credit:  James Joyce (thanks, Jim!)

A Hologram for the King: a Terrific Novel by David Eggers

Hologram for the KingI read a terrific novel while I was on vacation: Dave Eggers’s Hologram for the King.  Since I bought the paperback in the Newark Airport, Terminal C, which is the coldest waiting area I’ve ever experienced,  it was good to read a book set in the blazing heat of Saudi Arabia.  It also made a great trip book; it’s written in short sections that zip right along, perfect for reading on the fly, so to speak.  Its considerable strengths lie in its deceptively simple, effective prose; its main character, Alan Clay, a modern day Willie Loman; and Egger’s brilliant use of King Abdullah’s future Economic City as the setting.

I wasn’t sure King Abdullah’s Economic City actually exists.

King Abdullah's Economic City
King Abdullah’s Economic City

Its depiction in the novel is so absurd and fantastical that I wondered if it was fantasy.  I googled it (remember when we used to say “researched”?) and learned that indeed, The Economic City is underway, estimated to cost $86 billion by the time it’s completed–perhaps–in 2020.  As entertaining as it is, Hologram is also a serious novel about the global economy and America’s slipping place in it, viewed through the downward spiral of one middle-management male.

Alan Clay is just about washed up: he can’t sell his house–no buyers; his marriage is a distant, dismal failure which nevertheless continues to haunt him; his daughter is about to drop out of college because he can’t pay her tuition; in short, he’s “virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office.” His tax return for the previous year (the book was published in 2012, and takes place in 2010) was $22,350, “an experience he hadn’t expected to have at his age” (54).

He has borrowed money from associates to build a prototype of a new bicycle he wants to manufacture in Boston. But the banks laugh him out the door over the idea of building anything in the U.S. anymore.  Everything is being outsourced, mainly to China.  Alan did quite well in manufacturing when Schwinn was the big name in bikes, owning the majority of the U.S. market for eighty years. Schwinn continued trying to make bikes in the U.S., hanging on in a hundred-year-old factory until the eighties.  Finally the company’s management, including Alan, made the decision to outsource manufacturing  to Asia, thus ruining Alan’s livelihood in the process:

You want your unit cost down, you manufacture in Asia, but pretty soon the suppliers don’t need you, do they? Teach a man to fish.  Now the Chinese know how to fish, and ninety-nine percent of all bicycles are made there, in one province.

As the novel opens, Alan has a chance to redeem himself and his finances: he’s been hired as a consultant by Reliant to go to Saudi Arabia to pitch a holographic teleconference system to King Abdullah for his Economic City, which is under construction along the coast of the Red Sea.  If Abdullah is impressed, he’ll award the IT contract for the entire city to Reliant, and Alan’s commission will fix him for life.

In case you have no idea what a holographic teleconference system is (which I did not) it allows for 3D teleconferencing.  When Alan and his team give their holographic presentation in Saudi Arabia, their man in London appears to be on the stage, interacting with the audience as if there in person. Think 3D Skype.  Who even needs face to face, body to body anymore!  (Me.)

Alan has to hire a driver to take him to King Abdullah’s Economic City when he oversleeps and is late for the first day of his assignment there.  Yousef, his young driver, fears his car may be wired to explode by a husband who thinks Yousef is screwing his wife–an inauspicious but typical scenario for our anti-hero.  They take off for the Economic City, with Alan telling lame jokes and Yousef playing Feetwood Mac on his ipod that “looked like it had been buried in the sand for centuries and then unearthed.”  Alan is shocked that Yousef has never even been to the Economic City, which is supposed to be the biggest thing anywhere near Jeddah. But Yousef tells him the project is already dead.  Alan is vaguely aware that there are detractors in Saudi and that Emaar, the global developer that built much of Dubai, is in trouble, but he insists that King Abdullah could build the whole city himself with his own money, and won’t let his legacy (and Alan’s future along with it) fail.

When they arrive, the “city” consists of three buildings: Continue reading “A Hologram for the King: a Terrific Novel by David Eggers”

Colum McCann’s Beautiful Sentences in TRANSATLANTIC

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

I just finished reading TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann.  His novel, Let the Great World Spin, is one of my favorites.  I’m still processing TransAtlantic. It’s a dense, layered, complicated novel, moving through centuries, a large cast of characters, and a number of settings.  There’s a lot to keep up with.  I couldn’t even begin to synopsize the plot for you; there are so many stories.  I don’t think I could reduce it to a review, nor do I want to–at least not now.

McCann lays down one honed sentence after another, like perfect brush strokes. I want to share with you some of the lines or passages I underlined as I read.  Obviously the following quotes are out of context, and may not mean as much to you if you haven’t read the book.  But I hope they begin to give you a sense of  the novel and some of its themes: time; memory; passages both inner and outer; the connectedness of people; the way the past is always present; history and the way individual lives are played out against it; war and violence; and how small moments are often the most important.

At the least, I hope you’ll simply enjoy the sentences as sentences, for the pleasure and beauty of the prose.

From Book One

from the first section, entitled 1919   cloudshadow

p. 13.  Description of Jack Alcock, one of the two pilots who flew the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919:

A single man, he said he loved women but preferred engines. Nothing pleased him more than to pull apart the guts of a Rolls-Royce, then put her back together again.  He shared his sandwiches with the reporters: often there was a thumbprint of oil on the bread.

p. 30.  Description of Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown on the flight in a modified bomber, a Vickers Vimy, “all wood and linen and wire”:

The bones in their ears ring. The racket is stuck inside their skulls.  The small white room of their minds. The blast of noise from one wall to the other.  There are times Brown feels that the engines are trying to burst out from behind his eyes, some metal thing grown feral, impossible now to lose.

p. 36: As the two pilots clear the ocean and see land for the first time:

Down below, a sheep with a magpie sitting on its back.  The sheep raises its head and begins to run when the plane swoops, and for just a moment the magpie stays in place on the sheep’s back: it is something so odd Brown knows he will remember it forever.

The miracle of the actual.

From the second section, entitled 1845-46    freeman

p. 46.  When Frederick Douglass is being shown around Dublin while on his lecture tour in support of abolition in America and his autobiography:

Within seconds they were surrounded.  Webb had to force the carriage through the crowd of stretched hands.  The poor were so thin and white, they were almost lunar.

p. 51. Douglass writing in his room in Ireland while on the tour:

He was in a fever of work.  He wanted them to know what it might mean to be branded: for another man’s initials to be burned into your skin; to be yoked about the neck; to wear an iron bit at the mouth; to cross the water in a fever ship; to wake in another man’s field; to hear the jangle of the marketplace; to feel the lash of the cowhide; to have your ears cropped; to accept, to bend, to disappear.

p. 62. Douglass going to hear the Irish speaker Daniel O’Connell at a rally for Catholic emancipation:

Douglass canceled a tea in Sandymount to get there on time.  He arrived along the teeming docks.  He could not believe the size of the crowd: as if the whole sponge of Dublin had been squeezed down into a sink.

p. 68. Douglass and his host Webb traveling by carriage through the Irish countryside:

The afternoons spread in a great rush of yellow across the hills. Shutters in the sky, opening and closing suddenly.  A swinging brightness and then a darkness again.  There was some raw innocence about the land.

p. 75.   “It rained. The sky did not seem at all surprised.” Continue reading “Colum McCann’s Beautiful Sentences in TRANSATLANTIC”

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: a Mixed Review

The Yellow Bird by Kevin Powers
The Yellow Bird by Kevin Powers

I’ve been putting off writing a review of The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers’ novel about the Iraq war.  It was a finalist for the National Book Awards, and one of the The New York Times Ten Best Books of 2012.   I feel conflicted about it.  In some ways it is a stunning book; and yet by the end I felt it was seriously flawed. I feel both guilty and insecure about my assessment.  I see on the dust jacket the high praise it has garnered from writers like Alice Sebold, Colm Toibin, Anthony Swofford, and Philip Caputo.  A novel on the Iraq war that is as ambitious and literary as this one should be touted, so why not just let it go at that?  Yet I can’t get over the feeling that there is something too—too what?  Too literary at times (can’t believe I’m saying that), too self-consciously ambitious, too straining for significance in a way that I think ultimately harms the book.  The war in Iraq was so horrible, such an infuriating and heartbreaking mistake, so costly to so many, that I understand Powers’ desire to capture that.  I can imagine how fiercely he wants us who were untouched by the war to get what it was like, what it meant, and the devastating damage it did to those who fought.  All that is in the book, often brilliantly.  So I’m surprised and troubled that I can’t give it the bowled-over endorsement I was expecting to.

The Yellow Birds is described on the dust jacket as “the story of two soldiers trying to stay alive.”  The narrator is a twenty-one year old private, Bartle, and the even younger soldier, Murphy, whom he befriends and takes on as a responsibility, promising Murphy’s mother that he’ll bring him safely home.  The setting is the city of Al Tafar, a hellhole battleground that is the martial equivalent of the myth of Sisyphus.  I have to say that the novel is truly an amazing rendition of the horror of the war, and what the rest of us can only dimly imagine as the nightmare existence of an American soldier there.

The novel is also stylistically interesting and sophisticated. Powers is a beautiful, powerful writer on the whole, with a visual artist’s eye for descriptions of the city, of light, of dying, of bodies.  Here’s how the book opens:

The war tried to kill us in the spring.  As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns.  We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers.  While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.  When we pressed onward though exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark.  While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation.  It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.

When I read that passage, I was thrilled by the remarkable writing, poetry in prose.  Continue reading “The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: a Mixed Review”

Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi


Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

I hardly ever listen to books on tape, which I regret and keep meaning to remedy.  However, knowing I had a four plus hour drive ahead of me to Madeline Island in Northern Wisconsin, I dashed into our small, neighborhood library the day before I was to leave to see if I could get a book on discs.  The pickings were very slim; I almost gave up.  But then I saw Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.  I remembered vaguely reading a review of it when it came out, which had interested me for reasons long lost to me, other than the fact that I had been to Varanasi.  I had an equally vague sense of Geoff Dyer as a writer I should check out.  I got the CD set and threw it in the back seat.

The next day I started listening, and Reader, for the next four hours going north, I was entertained to the hilt. I could have just kept driving, on up into Canada and straight through to Hudson Bay.  It was with great reluctance that I arrived at the Bayfield ferry and was forced to turn the engine off and leave the world of Dyer’s novel.  I had thought I was in Venice, which I’ve never been to, swept up as I was in the passionate, coke fueled, hot sex fling of two strangers who meet up for a few days at the Biennale, the major contemporary art event that takes place in Venice every two years. What was not to like!  All read in a British accent.  The main character is a Londoner named Jeff Atman, whose clever, quirky consciousness I found irresistible:  

A creature of deep habit, Atman was programmed, the moment he set foot on Marylebone High Street, to go to the Patisserie Valerie’s and order a black coffee with a side-order of hot milk and an almond croissant—even though he didn’t want either.  Normally he came here in the mornings but now, in the post-lunch doldrums, it was too late for coffee, too early for tea (it was that time of the day, in fact, when no one wanted anything) and far too late to read the paper—which he’d read extra thoroughly, hours earlier, as a way of putting off writing his stupid think piece.  Fortunately he had a book for company, Mary McCarthy’s Venice Observed.  He’d first read it four years ago, after getting back from the 1999 Biennale, and had started rereading it now—along with the other standard books on Venice—in preparation for the return trip. His almond croissant was the size and complexion of a small roast turkey and in the time it took to chomp through it he was able to read the entire section on Giorgione’s The Tempest.

Dyer is brilliant in capturing this aging, floundering, vulnerable journalist in the most energized, dynamic, funny-sad prose I’ve read (okay, heard) in a long time.  Atman is being sent to the Biennale to interview the wife of a famous artist, and hopefully bring back a drawing the artist made of her. While there he meets an American woman, Laura, whom he finds immensely desirable.  Laura isn’t developed as a character beyond her sex appeal, but I didn’t mind.  Getting to hang out in Venice and experience the Biennale through our jaded, endearing anti-hero’s eyes is entertaining and absorbing enough.  It was also refreshing, at least to me, to see the man be the one whose emotions cross the sex/love barrier, rather than the woman’s.

Here the lovers are about to part ways as Laura is readying to leave Venice, their short interlude in the romantic city over: Continue reading “Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi”

Tony Earley and “Jack and the Mad Dog”


Tony Earley

As soon as I saw that Tony Earley had a short story in the October 1, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, I sat right down and read it.  This was An Occasion for me.  I’m a big Tony Earley fan, based on two of his books: Jim the Boy, a novel published in 2000, and Somehow Form a Family: Stories That Are Mostly True, 2001, a collection of autobiographical pieces about his Southern upbringing.  I love his writing, which is lyrical, full of wonderful Southern details familiar to me, and deceptively simple.  He grew up in the foothills of North Carolina, I in the foothills of South Carolina.  He teaches at Vanderbilt. 


Jim the Boy

When I read Jim the Boy, I was amazed at its sweetness and simplicity.  It’s a coming of age story about a ten year old boy in 1934 in North Carolina.  The prose was honed to perfection in a way that few writers can attain.  I no longer have a copy of it, but Jim the Boy came back to me with a jolt of deep pleasure when I saw his name in The New Yorker. 

Here’s a sample of his writing from Somehow Form a Family:

In July 1969, I looked a lot like Opie in the second or third season of The Andy Griffin Show. I was a small boy with a big head.  I wore blue jeans with the cuffs turned up and horizontally striped pullover shirts.  I was the brother in a father-mother-brother-sister family.  We lived in a four-room house at the edge of the country, at the foot of the mountains, outside a small town in North Carolina, but it could have been anywhere.

[I’m skipping a few paragraphs here.]

In July 1969, we did not have much money, but in the hierarchy of southern poor, we were the good kind, the kind you would not mind living on your road. We were clean.  Our clothes were clean.  My parents worked.  We went to church.  Easter mornings, Mama stood us in front of the yellowbell bush and took our picture.  We had meat at every meal—chicken and cube steak and pork chops and ham—and plenty of milk to drink.  We were not trashy.  Mrs. White [a neighbor] would not sit with her ashtray in the kitchen of trashy people.  Trashy people lived in the two houses around the curve past Mr. Harris’s.  When Daddy drove by those houses we could see that the kids in the yard had dirty faces. They were usually jabbing at something with a stick.  Shelly and I were not allowed to ride our bicycles around the curve.

“They were usually jabbing at something with a stick” is an irresistible sentence to me. How simple this writing appears, as if we’re hearing a child or a simple man.  But the rhythm of the sentences, the perfect, precise selection of detail, and the acute sense of this world are most definitely sophisticated. 

Continue reading “Tony Earley and “Jack and the Mad Dog””

Colm Toibin’s BROOKLYN: the Self-effaced Writer


Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn

In my last post I commented that one reason I liked Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One so much was that I felt the writer’s sensibility permeated the novel.  There’s a unique personality behind the curtain, narrating and describing even as the third person point of view ranges among a number of characters.  The novel has what I think of as voice.  I’ve tackled the subject of voice in writing in an article in which I described it as “the external manifestation, in language, of the writer’s sensibility: how she sees the world; her values; what she is attracted to in terms of subject matter; her style as expressed through diction, syntax, tone. Her expression and essence as an artist and person, really.” 

So it was an interesting surprise to me that the next novel I read, Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, seemed not to have voice.  It occurred to me that the writer was self-effaced, a term I have never heard of, so I made it up.  It is different from voice, in which the writer’s personality or sensibility shines through.  Here I forgot about the writer.  And yet I loved Brooklyn.  I loved it equally but differently from Carry the One.  I was reminded that while good writing may all be fruit, there are differences between apples and oranges.  As a writer I’m always interested in what kind of fruit a novel might be. 

Brooklyn is the story of a young woman, Eilis Lacey, who, unable to make a decent living in her small town in Ireland in the fifties, is offered the chance to move to America, to Brooklyn.  She’s sponsored by an Irish priest there who finds her work in a department store and arranges her lodging in a boarding house.  At first Eilis suffers intense homesickness for all she has left behind, especially her mother and her glamorous sister who has sacrificed so that Eilis might have a better chance in life.  Gradually she settles in to her new life, taking night classes in accounting to improve her employment possibilities, and finding love with Tony, who is Italian, a plumber, and loves the Dodgers almost as much as he loves Eilis. When her sister dies suddenly, Eilis returns to Ireland and her mother, and must decide which life to choose, home or Brooklyn with Tony. 

Synopsizing the plot, I realize that it sounds pretty mundane.  But Brooklyn is a remarkable book, one I can’t recommend highly enough. Reading it, I was conscious of how each sentence seemed to be laid down one after another like bricks–plain, solid, even. If that sounds laborious, heavy or tedious, then I am not conveying the skill with which the story unfolds.  Maybe I should say glass bricks, because the prose is so transparent that I felt I was seeing straight through to every important thing about Eilis’s life. By the time all the bricks are laid down, Tóibín has built a whole world as real as any you know. 

Continue reading “Colm Toibin’s BROOKLYN: the Self-effaced Writer”