Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Thirteen Ways to Look at AWP: My Favorite Quotes

The only time I’ve been able to attend AWP has been when it’s in Chicago, so this was my third go around. One reason I became a teacher is that nobody would pay me to be a full time student. At AWP I get to be a student again and it’s inspiring to see and hear the work of my peers and to connect with old friends. I filled a ream of notebook paper with quotes and ideas, and I started this week ready to charge back into my current writing project. Here are thirteen snippets from AWP, whether quotes or poems or stories or jokes:

  • “…my wish, indeed my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other's presence, each other's wonder, each other's human plight."—Eudora Welty
  • "A man is about to be hanged. 'Do you have anything to say?' asks his executioner as he leads him up the gallows and cinches the noose. 'Yes,' the man says: 'This thing doesn't look safe.'"
  • “What’s truer than truth? The story.”—Isabelle Allende
  • “Every story is a riddle…”  said Chris Abani in one panel. A little later he added that, “all literature is good gossip.” (In other words we read for mystery and the greatest mystery of all is each other—we must connect/or be fascinated by characters in the story.) Still, it was his definition of noir that fascinated me: “Noir is the result of the trauma of industrialization: we have been ripped from our roots.”
  • On research the research necessary for novels:  “Read two books and close your eyes.”
  • The screenwriter’s maxim from a great panel with Sean Otto on adaptation:“We have to get the cattle to Abilene—if it doesn’t solve the central problem, it has to go.”
  • “Violence in fiction is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality.”—Flannery O’Connor.
  • “America, stupidity plus enthusiasm is a dangerous combination.”—Tony Hoagland
  • I attended two panels on magical realism and speculative fiction and both were packed rooms. This shows to me how many readers and writers hunger for such stories. Here’s a favorite quote from the panel:“The uncanny is much richer than experience and embraces something lacking in real life. With deep roots in myth and folklore, it has potential to awaken us to the strangeness of life.”
  • On how Franz Kafka’s work foreshadowed the mechanized slaughter of the 20the century: “What golem, regardless of his strength can protect the people?”
  • On larger than life qualities of characters and fiction: “We are hardwired to crave novelty, our biological imperative. Such experiences—the mountaintop, the climax of a great story that invokes catharsis—release dopamine in our brains…In our fiction we must not buy into politeness. Let the character say or do that thing.”
  • Tony Hoagland received a standing ovation for his own version of William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

“So much depends


a red multinational


glazed with tax


beside the white


Monday, August 12, 2013

Literary Resources to Foster Dialogue on Race:

A Living Document, Evolving Based on Suggestions:

In the summer of 2013, social media shattered any pretense that Americans were living in a post-racial era.  George Zimmerman was acquitted of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an injustice that closely followed media attention on the allegations against Paula Deen.  After Zimmerman’s acquittal, in cities across America, protestors dressed in hoodies marched and carried signs, while President Obama called for a national conversation on racial relations.  For a short time it seemed like such a discussion might happen.  Then we blinked.  The media moved on to other stories, other outrages.  It was summer after all, and we went to the beach, to the lake, to our places of rest.  We went on and nothing changed.

Nothing changed except this.  That conversation is still waiting to happen.  It’s not that social media exposed us to any new idea this summer.  All sites like publicshaming.tumbrl.com did was drag the ugliness of racism out into plain sight where we couldn’t ignore it anymore.   If we are honest, we’ve been hearing such racist comments out in public or in the privacy of our homes, from strangers and from our own friends and family.  All social media helped us realize was how tangible and destructive racism continues to be in America in 2013.

Along with so many others, I felt angry and helpless, but then I had an idea I posted on Facebook.

One afternoon I was imagining a literature class in which the only two students were George Zimmerman and Paula Deen, and I started daydreaming about what I would put on the syllabus. I immediately realized that every semester I do have a student or two like Zimmerman or Deen pass through one course or another. I thought about the Supreme Court’s dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, how now more than ever we need open and honest discussions about race.  What better place for this to happen than the classroom, and what better subject, since reading fiction has been shown to increase empathy?

I asked this question to my friends, many of whom are teachers: if George Zimmerman and Paula Deen are students in our classroom, then what stories, essays, poems, novels, or plays should we put on the syllabus of life? Here now, I would like to share the best responses and suggestions, along with links connecting to the work.  I’m more hopeful, now than ever, that at least through literature we might achieve both dialogue and progress on the subject of race in America.  I’m calling this a “living document” because I plan to keep updating it with new writing and suggestions and links. 

One thing most commenters agreed on is that while such discussions are necessary, they are still going to be difficult.  Professor Aimee Viera noted that:  the hard part is designing an evaluation regime that encourages bravery and engagement on the part of the students, with honesty of expression being supported (even when those honest expressions are shocking in their ignorance). I struggle with this challenge regularly.”

As this document continues to evolve, I also hope to include questions and writing prompts that will help encourage discussion in the classroom.  For instance, in the note below on Anna Deavere Smith's one woman play, Fires in the Mirror, Professor Diana Joseph included three questions that may be useful as a touchstone for discussion.  (See below)  Here are some literary resources to consider, broken down by genre—Short Story, Short Story Collection, Essay, Discussion or Video Link, Essay Collection, Classic Novel and Young Adult, Graphic Novel, and Play—with links to full texts or video where available.

than ever we need honest, open discussions about race. What better place for this to happen than in the classroom, and what better subject, since reading fiction has been to shown to increase empathy? So, if George Zimmerman and Paula Deen are students in our classroom, then what essays, stories, poems, novels or plays should we put on the syllabus of life?Short Story:

"The End of FIRPO in the World" by George Saunders:  http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1998/05/18/1998_05_18_076_TNY_LIBRY_000015572we need honest, open discussions about race. What better place for this to happen than in the classroom, and what better subject, since reading fiction has been to shown to increase empathy? So, if George Zimmerman and Paula Deen are students in our classroom, then what essays, stories, poems, novels or plays should we put on the syllabus of life?than ever we need honest, open discussions about race. What better place for this to happen than in the classroom, and what better subject, since reading fiction has been to shown to increase empathy? So, if George Zimmerman and Paula Deen are students in our classroom, then what essays, stories, poems, novels or plays should we put on the syllabus of life? than ever we need honest, open discussions about race. What better place for this to happen than in the classroom, and what better subject, since reading fiction has been to shown to increase empathy? So, if George Zimmerman and Paula Deen are students in our classroom, then what essays, stories, poems, novels or plays should we put on the syllabus of life? than ever we need honest, open discussions about race. What better place for this to happen than in the classroom, and what better subject, since reading fiction has been to shown to increase empathy? So, if George Zimmerman and Paula Deen are students in our classroom, then what essays, stories, poems, novels or plays should we put on the syllabus of life? than ever we need honest, open discussions about race. What better place for this to happen than in the classroom, and what better subject, since reading fiction has been to shown to increase empathy? So, if George Zimmerman and Paula Deen are students in our classroom, then what essays, stories, poems, novels or plays should we put on the syllabus of life? than ever we need honest, open discussions about race. What better place for this to happen than in the classroom, and what better subject, since reading fiction has been to shown to increase empathy? So, if George Zimmerman and Paula Deen are students in our classroom, then what essays, stories, poems, novels or plays should we put on the syllabus of life? than ever we need honest, open discussions about race. What better place for this to happen than in the classroom, and what better subject, since reading fiction has been to shown to increase empathy? So, if George Zimmerman and Paula Deen are students in our classroom, then what essays, stories, poems, novels or plays should we put on the syllabus of life? than ever we need honest, open discussions about race. What better place for this to happen than in the classroom, and what better subject, since reading fiction has been to shown to increase empathy? So, if George Zimmerman and Paula Deen are students in our classroom, then what essays, stories, poems, novels or plays should we put on the syllabus of life?

"Where Is This Voice Coming From?" by Eudora Welty, which she wrote the night she learned NAACP activist Medgar Evers had been assassinated. She channeled all of her anguish into a timeless work: http://www.newyorker.com/online/2009/03/16/090316on_audio_oates

Short Story Collection:

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans.  You can hear her reading from it here on NPR:  http://www.npr.org/2011/07/14/134259250/watch-danielle-evans-short-story-reading-at-npr


“A Stranger in the Village” by James Baldwin.  Full essay here:  https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/gjay/www/Whiteness/stranger.htm  The essay is part of a larger collection, the classic Notes of a Native Son.

 “Peculiar Benefits" by Roxane Gay:   http://therumpus.net/2012/05/peculiar-benefits/

"Black Men and Public Spaces” by Brent Staples.  This widely anthologized essay, a staple in composition texts,  was first published in Harpers in 1986 but remains fully relevant and compelling.   http://facstaff.uww.edu/carlberj/Journal3.htm

"What's Inside You, Brother?” by Toure (from his collection Never Drank the Kool Aid.)  Toure is actually a commentator on MSNBC now and his comments on the Paula Deen case were intriguing:   http://www.mediaite.com/tv/toure-if-you-support-paula-deen-youre-saying-racism-doesnt-matter-to-me/

“The Death of a Boy:  Trayvon Martin” by Kao Kalia Yang. 

http://opineseason.com/2013/07/18/the-death-of-a-boy-trayvon-martin/  Along with this essay, Kao Kalia Yang has also written a memoir, The Late Homecomer, about leaving the Hmong refugee camps in Laos behind for life in St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s beautifully written and poignant, so I often return to teaching her memoir in my writing classes.  Sample discussion questions can be found here and I would be happy to share full resources designed by Normandale instructors the year The Late Homecomer was our campus Common Book if you send me an email:  http://international.uiowa.edu/files/international.uiowa.edu/files/file_uploads/hmong_questions_0.pdf

Discussion or Video Link:

"The Pathology of White Privilege" by Tim Wise:  http://vimeo.com/25637392

"The Danger of a Single Story" by Chimamanda Adichie:  http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

Essay Collection or Nonfiction Work:

The Women by Hilton Als.  Part memoir and part sociopolitical examination, Hilton Als explores the story of his own mother and the mother of Malcolm X in this book about race and identity. http://us.macmillan.com/thewomen/HiltonAls

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.  A seminal work published shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech when the Civil Rights movement was emerging.  This article discusses the continuing relevancy of the two essays in this work today:  http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/15016429-simmering-with-zimmermanjames-baldwins-the-fire-next-time-revisited

Fresh off the Boat:  a memoir by Eddie Huang:  NPR’s interview is in-depth, but you can also find numerous excerpts online, such as this one about experiencing the American version of Thanksgiving:  http://www.bonappetit.com/blogsandforums/blogs/badaily/2012/11/eddie-huang-book-excerpt.html

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.   Salon has a great interview here:  http://www.salon.com/2010/03/23/history_of_white_people_nell_irvin_painter/

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot:  I’ve taught this book before as part Normandale’s Common Book program and it’s a student favorite.  For instructors out there, one serious advantage is the extensive resources found on this book:  http://rebeccaskloot.com/the-immortal-life/teaching/

"Looking at Emmitt Till" by John Edgar Wideman. A portion of this essay collection, “The Killing of Black Boys,” first published in Essence magainze, is also available online: http://www.emmetttillmurder.com/Wideman.htm

Black Boy by Richard Wright.  Autobiographical account of race relations in the South.  There’s a great teaching series that features a documentary which can be found here:  http://www.newsreel.org/guides/richardw.htm


Little Bee by Chris Cleave .  This novel is described as “well-crafted popular literature that asks difficult questions and gives a privileged woman a character to empathize with while trying to connect to someone else not at all like her.”  http://www.chriscleave.com/books/little-bee/reading-group-guide/

The Round House by Louise Erdrich.  This novel is Normandale’s Common Book for the academic year of 2013-2014 and I look forward to teaching it.  The Roundhouse, which deals with issues of violence against women and tribal justice, has been compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and won the National Book Award in 2012.  PBS has a solid interview with the author up, and here’s a guide that includes discussion questions:  http://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/13-fiction/8956-round-house-erdrich-?start=1

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James.  Marlon James teaches at Macalester in the Twin Cities.  His second novel is written in the patois of a Jamaican slave and it was a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award.  Here on his blog, he debates whether or not to get rid of his Flannery O’Connor books after discovering she was a racist:  http://marlon-james.blogspot.com/

Pym by Mat Johnson.  Here is a deeply American novel, about what it means white or black in this country, a wildly inventive story that features an out of work professor on a “crazy adventure to find Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.  Satiric and inventive, the novel also features fascinating discussions about race in America.  At the author’s website you can find links to the Poe novel, along with other works it inspired:  http://matjohnson.info/sequels/

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd -- What better way to reach someone than by giving them a vulnerable child character as in this coming of age story set in the South?  http://www.us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/secret_life_bees.html

Angry Black White Boy by Adam Mansbach.  Set in the mid eighties, the hip-hop loving narrator of this satiric novel explores issues of white privilege and race in America.  http://www.alternet.org/story/21943/whiteness_visible

Martin and John by Dale Peck.  A novel that braids together two stories about love in the time of the AIDS crisis.  Professor Ed Madden at the University of Southern Carolina has put together an entire pedagogical series on teaching the of literature AIDS that also mentions this book:  http://www.ars-rhetorica.net/Queen/VolumeSpecialIssue/Articles/EdMadden.pdf

The Healing by Jonathan O’Dell.   Twin Cities writer Jonathan O’Dell grew up in Mississippi, where he was involved in the Civil Rights movement.  He consults on issues of diversity for corporations and has published a guide called Work Skills for Teams and Courageous Conversations.  I hope to find out more about how he engages in such conversations.  His website can be found here:  http://jon-odell.com/blog/about-jon-2/

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald.  A novel about memory and loss, which tells the story of a Jew who immigrates to England as part of the Kindertransporte program in 1939. Here the New Yorker makes the case for why all of us should be reading W.G. Sebald:  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/12/why-you-should-read-w-g-sebald.html

The Color Purple by Alice Walker.  In this epistolary novel, a poor black woman living in the south writes letters to God.  CSI-CUNY has gathered together a collection of resources here: http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/purple.html

Salvage the Bones by Jesymn Ward.  Winner of the 2011 National Book Award, Salvage features a teenage narrator named Esch trying to hold her family together and survive in the wake Hurricane Katrina’s passage through Mississippi.  Interview with the author here:  http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/08/30/jesmyn-ward-on-salvage-the-bones/

Classic Novel and Young Adult*:

*These are novels are sometimes taught in high school, but many people may not have read them and they deserve a space on every shelf.

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  When I teach young adult literature, my students rave about Alexie’s novel and it’s one of my favorites.  Both humorous and poignant, the story of Junior’s life on the reservation also remains deeply controversial and was recently banned in one district:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/02/sherman-alexie-part-time-indian-masturbation_n_3696555.html

As a side note, I also love Sherman Alexie’s article, “Why the Best Books are Written in Blood” about controversial issues in literature:  http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-written-in-blood/

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.  I was fascinated to recently discover that Ralph Ellison spent four decades working on a sequel that he never published.  Slate has more here:  http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/06/ralph_ellison_s_invisible_man_follow_up_why_did_he_never_publish_it.html

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.  Some go as far as crediting this novel with helping to spark the Civil Rights movement by telling the truth about racial injustice in the South. More about the link between the two can be found here:  http://resources.mhs.vic.edu.au/mockingbird/civil.htm

Cry the Beloved Country by Alex Paton.  Stacie Michelle Williams pointed out that it may help students to see racial relations and troubling histories in other countries and she remembered this classic novel set in Apartheid South Africa as being “mind-opening.”  Many unit plans for teaching this novel exist online:  http://www.careerhighschool.org/uploads/1/5/9/7/15971030/cry_beloved_.pdf

Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor.  Newberry award winning novel about life for the Land family in the Jim-Crow era South.  High quality unit plans such as this one abound on the web:  http://www.ogdenmuseum.org/education/pdf/rollOfThunder.pdf

Night by Elie Wiesel.  This memoir of the Holocaust was reportedly rejected by fifteen publishers, but went on to sell more than ten million copies.  The NYT has more on the story here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Donadio-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Graphic Novel:
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.  Complex, multi-layered story of growing up Chinese in America in the 1980’s.  Resources for teaching this and other graphic novels can be found here:  http://teachingwithgraphicnovels.com/2011/08/09/american-born-chinese/

Incognegro by Mat Johnson.  Fascinating story of a light-skinned black man who passes as white to investigate lynchings in the 1930’s. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/03/books/03gust.html

Arab in America by Toufic El Rassi.  Published in 2008, this autobiographical graphic novel shows what life during the War on Terror was like from the perspective of an Arab-immigrant. http://bookdragon.si.edu/2010/04/13/arab-in-america-by-toufic-el-rassi/

The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, Nate Powell.  Set in 1967, Houston, this autobiographical graphic novel covers the Civil Rights struggle from the alternating perspectives of a white and a black family.  http://www.graphicnovelreporter.com/content/long-journey-story-behind-silence-our-friends-interview

The Arrival by Shaun Tan.  The immigrant experience captured in pictures only.  http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/booktalk-arrival-shaun-tan

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  Graphic memoir about growing up in Iran during the revolution.  Satrapi’s story is taught in classes nationwide, though it is sometimes censored:  http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2013/03/18/1735481/chicago-public-schools-take-marjane-satrapis-persepolis-out-of-seventh-grade-classrooms/


Fires in the Mirror by Anna Deveare Smith. Professor Diana Joseph relates her reading experience here and I love the three questions she includes: “I read it in one of Melanie Rae Thon's classes when I was in grad school and it blew my mind. It's about the riots that happened in Crown Heights, Brooklyn back in the early 90's after a Hasidic rabbi was acquitted for the death of a black child--the rabbi and his driver killed the kid in a hit and run. Anna Deveare Smith interviewed many people from both communities--everyone from a Hasidic Jewish housewife to Al Sharpton--and turned those interviews into the dramatic monologues that make up her play. What I think is especially amazing is that Smith plays all the parts. The stuff she says about writing in her introduction is good, too. (One thing has always stayed with me. She says there are three questions that will you can ask anyone and their answers will be poetry: 1. have you ever been close to death; 2. what were the circumstances of your birth; and 3. have you ever been accused of something you did not do?)

Youtube performance of the play:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnkrUJny0CE

More about Anna Deveare Smith here:  http://voices.cla.umn.edu/artistpages/smith_anna.php

"Other People's Holocausts: Trauma, Empathy and Justice in Anna Deveare Smith's Fires in the Mirror" https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/gjay/www/annadeaveresmith.pdf

"Fences" by August Wilson.  Race conscious play set in a pre-Civil Rights 1950’s.  A full teaching guide designed by a Minneapolis theater can be found here:  http://penumbratheatre.org/downloads/studyguides/FencesParts/Fences-Part12-ToolsforTeaching.pdf

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Books and Blooms and Baked Blessings

After a packed, challenging semester, I am officially on summer break.  I plan to update this blog more frequently in the coming weeks with both stories from the road, the release of my second novel, Little Wolves a few months before, and hints about the next one, The Last Dauphin.

Tonight, what's on my mind is all the ways literature can inspire and feed us, sometimes literally.  Shouldn't a pleasurable reading experience invoke all of our senses, including smell and taste?  First, Gustavus Adolfus College down in St. Peter, Minnesota, recently featured a Books and Blooms fundraising event that my press, Soho Press, helped sponsor.  The event featured many books, including my two novels.  I was impressed by how well the florist captured themes and plotlines with these floral arrangements.  Here's the floral arrangement for The Night Birds:

And here's the arrangement for Little Wolves

And on a lighter, punnier note, one of my favorite librarians, LeAnn Suchy, who just finished teaching a class at St. Kate's in St. Paul, challenged her students to create baked goods that played with the titles of books they'd read during the semester.  I love what they did with The Night Birds:
Credit for the cake goes to:  Katelyn Buechler, Emily Buechler, Ali Wysopal, and Lauren Peck.  I love it!

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Farm, the Storm, and Instagram

The best camera I have ever owned is not a camera, but my i-Phone.  Linked with the popular app Instagram, I've been able to take decent photographs, though I am a raw amateur when it comes to photography.   The following shots were taken on a small farm owned and operated  by my in-laws and they show what I love about life in rural Minnesota. This first shot is of the garden and trellis.  We visited on a day of perfect cloud-light, with big, puffy cumuli drifting past in a wash of cobalt blue.  The farm is a land of sky and wind.

This shot shows how the filters operate on Instagram, which isn't completely idiot proof.  While I would like to take the credit for having a "good eye," the truth is that this program makes the process simple.  With my first attempt, I didn't bring out the colors and angles quite right, which may have just been the sun bleaching out colors, but as the clouds passed over the sun the light came just right to allow this photo:

These cows are "belties" or Belted Galloways, the same Scottish breed I chose to feature in my novel, Little Wolves.  (If you look at these cows and think "yum!" you would be right.  The belties raised here are also hormone and antibiotic-free and you can purchase the beef directly from the farmer at:  http://dahlkefarms.com/  Supporting local farmers benefits the environment and your family's health and pocketbook!)  What I know about farming and working the land comes from visiting here along with all the years my wife Melissa, an ordained Lutheran pastor, has spent serving rural congregations.  The second shot is of the barn, properly weather-beaten, dour and sturdy as an old man missing a few front teeth.  If you climb inside, up into the loft, you can touch the hand-hewn beams from a previous century, trace the marks of the awl, and know you are touching something elemental and true, life as it was, and perhaps life as it should be.

Oh, and the farm comes with wildlife, barn cats and snakes and frogs, plenty to keep the kids busy.

We loaded up on fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and sugar snap peas, a summer of abundance.  The vegetable and flower gardens provide only as a result of hours of hard work from my mother and father in-law.

These next shots show the difference between filtered and unfiltered.  While true purists will tag a photograph as "no filter" to show that it hasn't been doctored, my own take is that the filter more closely approximates what I'm seeing with naked eye.  If you look at the third shot of the rainbow, you'll see that I didn't use a filter and you'll notice the difference.  The light is washed out, right?  None of deeper blues of the sky, the storm, or even the flowers have been captured.  It's still pretty, but lacks the drama of the shots with the filter.

What a panoramic landscape the country offers.  Even driving home through this ominous cloudburst made me glad we visited the farm this weekend.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Genre and the Lit Life

The Night Circus is the best example of literary fantasy I've read in a long while, a hybrid book that stirs elements of steampunk, romance, and legends into a bubbling cauldron to make something exciting and new.  It’s like Water for Elephants, but with wizards instead of critters.

The word I thought of most often while reading it was “agon,” the classic Greek term for a contest between two forces which meet in a final climactic battle.  Morgenstern’s clever take on this story structure asks what would happen if protagonist and antagonist fell in love?  What if underneath, the forces were one and the same?

As I read through the reviews of friends on this site I find myself agreeing with some of the complaints.  Yes, the scene sets are sumptuous, with descriptions of dinners and spectacle that sometimes become wearying.  Erin Morgenstern excels in her use of imagery, all captured with a third person limited omniscience and told in present tense, which adds forward momentum to the plot.  Yes, some of the minor characters like Poppet and Widget become more interesting than the main characters.  Yes, the emotional landscape of the novel will leave some empty.

Professional reviewers also expressed mixed views.  The New York Times review was less than flattering:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/books/review/the-night-circus-by-erin-morgenstern-book-review.html   Stacey D’Erasmo concludes the novel is bloodless, writing that “[m]agic without passion is pretty much a trip to Pier One: lots of shrink-wrapped candles. One wishes Morgenstern had spent less time on the special effects and more on the hauntingly unanswerable question that runs, more or less ignored, through these pages: Can children love who were never loved, only used as intellectual machines? What kind of magic reverses that spell? It’s not as pretty a spectacle, but that’s a story that grips the heart.”   Contrast her take with Ron Charles’ review in the WaPo, and you can see why readers will be divided about this book.    While he complains about “too much going on” Charles also notes how  [t]he author mingles a sense of adolescent delight with a mature chilliness that reflects the circus’s stunning black-and-white decor, and the abiding potential for violence gives the plot a subtle charge.”  His review positively glows.

Ultimately, after reflection, this is still a five star read in my mind, a book that does what good books should do:  transport a reader into another world.  It’s a book that works the oldest magic of all, enchanting the reader.  The Night Circus is a richly layered story, using Shakespeare’s Tempest and elements of Potter-esque fantasy to tap into the current zeitgeist.  How?

I liked this take from Christine Ziemba, who pointed out that “[a] quick answer lies in DNA. Human wiring brings along its appetites, and one of these happens to be a fascination with the unknown, with possibility beyond plausibility. It’s why we humans can fly now. It’s why our cities light up at night.”

In short, our dreams.  It’s fitting that the final section includes this quote from Prospero in The Tempest:  “We are such stuff/ as dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”  This is why you should read this book.One of my favorite quotes from the novel captures for me what makes it such a charming, original and compelling read.  I’ll conclude with it.

“Stories have changed my dear boy,” the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad.  “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue.  Most maidens are perfectly capable or rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case.  There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path.  The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are.  And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise.  Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead.  Good and evil are a good deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl.  And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?  Is not the wolf simply acting as a wolf should act?  Though perhaps it is a singular wolf who goes to such lengths as to dress as a grandmother to toy with its prey.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Catch a Tiger

All great novels, a professor once announced to class, are about sex and death.  Argue that such a view is reductive, if you will, but it’s helped me to understand many difficult works in the past. The Tiger’s Wife tilts toward the death end of this polarity, with a sprinkling of interspecies sex to lighten the passage.

I read this because I am on a mythos kick lately, favoring novels that interweave legend and fairy tale into our ordinary, drab world.  Tea Obreht’s novel  offers a rich reading experience for readers like me, as it braids two myths—The Deathless Man and the Tiger’s Wife—with the story of a young female doctor’s search for what happened following her beloved grandfather’s death.

Because I am a writer and not a book critic, I will offer here two contrasting views of the novel.   Writing for Salon.com, well known literary critic Laura Miller said that “the plain truth is that “The Tiger’s Wife,” while certainly entertaining and of considerable literary merit, is too rich for its own good: Obreht would have been well-advised to parcel out its constituent elements as stand-alone stories.”

By contrast, Michiko Kakutani, in a glowing review for The New York Times, praised how, ”Ms. Obreht creates an indelible sense of place, a world, like the Balkans, haunted by its past and struggling to sort out its future, its imagination shaped by stories handed down generation to generation; its people torn between ancient beliefs and the imperatives of what should be a more rational present. In doing so, Ms. Obreht has not only made a precocious debut, but she has also written a richly textured and searing novel.”

Bloated or blazing?  Who has the tiger by its tail?  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)  The truth probably runs a split between these two views.  I loved the myths interwoven in this novel, but found the present day rendering of the war in the Balkans to be bleached out in comparison, a pale yet subtly enchanting experience in its own right.  That it is to say that it was lovely to read, but because the author is so intent on avoiding anything smacking of melodrama, the result is that these scenes don’t evoke as much emotion as they should. That’s a small complaint in what is otherwise a wonderful novel.

My own verdict:   It’s a damn good book.  It would be easy to hate Tea Obreht since she is not yet even thirty years old and has a written a work that will live for the ages.  Don’t believe me?  Read “The Laugh” which was also featured in Best American Short Stories, 2011:  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/08/the-laugh/7531/

It’s an absolutely chilling story.  You will not like hyenas at the end, in case you were a fan of this animal species before reading it.  We read this story in my intro to creative writing class and I can remember after reading aloud the endnotes how surprised my students were that Tea Obreht had never been to Africa. 

“Cheater!” one student exclaimed.  Like I said, it would be easy to hate her.  If you are inclined to such feelings, go ahead.  As for me, I intend to read all of her work.  I will conclude here with my usual technique, typing out my favorite passages from the novel.   Here’s a cool scene set:

“North of Brejevina, the road was well paved, stark and new because the scrubland had not grown back up to it, the cliffs rising white and pitch and pocked with thorn trees.  A wind-flattened thunderhead stood clear of the sea, its gray insides stretching out under the shining anvil…”

Here is the grandfather, and a little of the death theme.  Please note that the grandfather is most fully present in this novel through the telling of his mythology:  “You are going to see what it is like someday, being in a room full of the dying.  They’re always waiting, and in their sleep they are waiting most of all.  When you’re around them you’re waiting too, measuring all the time their breaths, their sighs.”

Here is one of my favorite passages as the Deathless Man explains his reason for existence:   “You and I are misunderstanding one another,” he says…”The dead are celebrated.  The dead are loved.  They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.”

“I want to say to him, the living are celebrated too, and loved.”

Yes, it’s a melancholy work, but I love melancholy.

And here is a passage from Darisa, the bear hunter.  One other thing I really loved about this work was how fully fleshed out even minor characters were.  Darisa has just lost his epilectic sister, his charge, to a deadly seizure:  “Young boys are fascinated by animals, but for Darisa the hysterical dream of the golden labyrinth, coupled with the silent sanctuary of the trophy room, amounted to a much simpler notion:  absence, solitude, and then, at the end of it all, Death in thousands of forms, standing in that hall with frankness and clarity—Death had size and color and shape, texture and grace.  There was something concrete to it.  In that room, Death had come and gone, swept by, and left a mirage of life—it was possible, he realized to find life in Death.”

To find life in death.  Yes.  For me that gets to the core of what art should do.