Rising from the ashes?

Just checking to see if anyone still gets notifications about this blog, which has been in a coma for at least six years. Any interest in reviving it? If not, are there other FB alternatives where people gather?


Dean Young

I don't know if this is the right forum (edit as necessary, Grendel), but I received this unbelievably sad link about Dean Young this morning, and I'm passing it along to those who might not know. Basically, he needs a heart transplant, and the link offers a way to help.

At Iowa, I sat in on some poetry seminars with Dean, and he was a really smart, really cool guy. He lived in that crazy Victorian house, and I'm pretty sure he was more or less a hero to some of the poets who followed him from Chicago.

I had no idea about his condition, and I wish him all the best, as I'm sure everyone who knows him does.


Review: "The Warm Fuzzies" by Chris Adrian

New Yorker fiction | September 27, 2010 issue
Approximate word count: 7200
POV: Third-person

Loved it. Not just because it reminded me of my childhood church/music experiences, but because Chris Adrian is able to get into a young teenage girl's (Molly's) head and just rock the thoughts that would fly through it. It's pretty remarkable how close and natural and believable this third-person is.

The situation is we have a large white family, led by a father who makes his children sing his original Christian songs in a group. The other thing is, they are constantly cycling in and out black foster children.  Molly has seen them all, can barely remember who was who. But as Elizabeth McCracken reminded us, a story should answer the question:  How is this night different from all other nights?  Peabo, the latest foster kid, is how it is different.

Peabo gets under Molly's skin in a way the others haven't.  He can't play the tambourine, but he can dance in her bedroom. The sexual undercurrent here is masterfully presented, and what Peabo does for Molly is bring her dormant rebellion to the surface just by being ... strange.  Strange in a way that things are strange to kids, like little dances and gestures and movements that they make up meanings for.

I don't often have the pleasure of reading something so awkwardly reminiscent of my awkward years, so well attuned to the pubescent psyche, and so well and satisfactorily rendered to boot. Adrian zeroes in on the way Molly's frustrations and unspoken impulses undercurrently burble and patiently lets them develop delicious and trembling bit by bit until ... until the freaking great final scene.

Read it.


Review: "Birdsong" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

New Yorker fiction | September 20, 2010 issue
Approximate word count: 5600
POV: First-person

I liked this better on the second read, but Frank Conroy said you should never count on a second read, because if a story doesn't grab you by the hair the first time through, there won't be one.  Except in a case  like this, where I'm reviewing it. It's not that it's a bad story, but there's nothing that stands out about it quite enough for me to recommend reading it (which is what a green light would mean).

It's the old "bitter other woman" tale, told from her point of view.  In Lagos, Nigeria, the narrator is involved with a well-heeled married man whose wife is living in the US. For more than a year she lives with him in his estate on an island until realizing (who saw this coming?) that she will never have him. She breaks up with him. A story that has been told many, many times, and it's too bad there are no surprises to be had here. Sure, it's unusual to read about upper/middle class Africans, but something like that alone shouldn't recommend a story. You're busy!

I think the best thing about this, and which might make it worth reading (for writers looking to add to their bags of tricks) is the use of well-chosen details that add to the theme and setting. The details in this case come from the narrator, stuck in traffic, watching her fellow commuters interact with "hawkers" who approach the trapped drivers and try to sell them stuff. She notes how nobody trusts each other and everybody is wary. A guy buying a phone card makes the hawker wait while he verifies the number on his phone. She knows the bottles of beer being sold are warm but have been dipped in water to make them look cold. Her car is hit twice in the story, once by a motorbike (whose driver nervously proclaims there was no damage and speeds off) and once by a taxi (whose driver gets out and yells at her).

Her coworkers tie that vignette back to the theme -- that an unmarried woman gets no respect in Lagos.  Her lover's driver is so contemptuous he will hardly speak to her. Neither will the waiter at the only restaurant her lover feels it's safe to take her to. All this leads the narrator to realize that although technically she is enjoying the partial companionship of dating a married man, she really has no power -- just as, in general, women have little power in the world around her.

But this is a short story, not a sociological case study. Something should happen -- she should make a choice, do something dramatic, get her freak on, something!  Unfortunately she just meekly backs out of the whole thing and takes it out on her colleagues one day by being cranky. Finally she yells impotently at the woman in the car stuck next to her in the traffic jam. The woman -- all hoity-toity and superior-looking (as she imagines his wife is) -- has been staring at her all this time. "What is your problem? Why have you been staring at me? Do I owe you?"  The woman just drives away as the traffic begins to clear.

That's a pretty weak ending. The emotion is never really released or resolved in this story, in fact.  That's why I found it ultimately unsatisfying. Adichie clearly has the chops, with an Orange Prize and a MacArthur fellowship under her belt.  The writing itself is excellent.  But the story lacks punch.


Review: "The Landlord" by Wells Tower

New Yorker fiction | September 13, 2010 issue
Approximate word count:  5800
POV: First-person

Here is a story with a bit of zeitgeist, told in the form of vignettes narrated by a North Carolina landlord named Coates who is dealing with the spatters of the popped housing bubble.  Coates is losing his properties left and right and is headed for financial trouble. We enter the action by meeting a model tenant who lives in one of his slummier places, and the story properly ends with that tenant too, who turns out to be not such a model after all.  In between those bookends the action bounces between the narrator's two handymen and his smart-ass artist daughter, who has recently moved back in with him from L.A.

And that is enough for a short story, if properly done.

There's not a lot that's necessary to say about this story.  It's of the old-fashioned, Cheeveresque/Yatesian kind. The straightforward style wavers somewhere between formally flat and colloquial, with the choicest morsels bobbing along in the dialogue.  The author is not trying to impress, but he's also got a good ear.

Coates sends his two handymen -- one an angry old misanthrope, the other a hulking fresh-faced youngster -- to Idaho to fix up the Idaho cottage his parents left him, and where he'd planned to retire but now must sell to relieve his mounting debts.  The two men do not get along on the trip, and their telephone calls relay the distant action to Coates, providing humor.

It's his daughter Rhoda who is the heart of the story.  She says she's moved back to work on a new "body" of paintings, that are kind of about...
To some extent, your problems with the real-estate stuff, and my parallel humiliation at having to move in with you. But in a broader sense it's about our collective lack of integrity and total fucking childishness in the wake of the financial crisis, i.e. the national epidemic of petulance and bratty outrage over the fact that poor people don't get to buy castles on credit anymore...
It's that voice, Rhoda's voice, that gives the story energy and spunk.  She is the charismatic character, the oddball who sticks out, who provides a counterbalance to the narrator's ho-hum business-like even-keeledness.  Vivid contrast is what she is.  She goes around taking pictures of a huge limb that has fallen on his deck, seeing in it a symbol of the fallen state of America (or something, it doesn't matter -- put more Rhodas in stories, please).  Yet what she's actually doing is creating paintings of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which she explains is a kind of transmogrified sexual symbol that her dad inflicted on her as a kid by taking her to see the movie.  The scenes between her and her father crackle on the page.  Rhoda is alive and thinking in a way that the others, including the narrator, aren't.

I won't give away the ending, but I found it satisfying.

There's nothing new about this story, but it does the old very well -- it is charming and almost neat and symmetrical while managing to appeare loose and ragged around the edges.  John Cheever and Richard Yates would like it, I think.


At Swim, Two Birds

Has anyone ever read this?  I have to confess, I'd never even heard of it.  Brian O'Nolan, writing under the pseudonym Flann O'Brien... I found a copy in my parents' house, picked it up, was blown away by the first dozen pages but then had to go to sleep.  The enthusiastic cover blurbs by James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene, and John Updike, given the comic nature of the writing, I assumed were fake, in that Irish literary hoax kind of way.  But no... they are real.  How could I have never heard of this book, and even more puzzling:  what was it doing on my parents' bookshelves?


Deanna Fei interview

Deanna Fei's first novel, A Thread of Sky, follows six women from three generations of a Chinese American family as they take a tour of both China and their own complex relationships. A New York Times Editors' Choice and an Indie Next Notable Book, Deanna's story is chock full of complex characters who face intertwining national and personal histories. We were lucky enough to catch up with the lovely and delightful author for the following interview. Pour a cup of tea, sit back...

You went on a package tour of China with three generations of women in your family. Did your novel come out of that experience, and if so, how did the novel depart from reality? Is that something you consciously forced or did it happen naturally on its own?

A Thread of Sky was inspired by my China experiences and my own family, but it departed from reality the moment I started writing it. I think that in writing any story, you have to cede control to your characters, to let them surprise you with the twists that their lives take—and this may be doubly true in writing any story with an autobiographical origin. For me, this mostly happened naturally, but particularly in revising, I tried to be vigilant in making sure that nothing remained in the novel simply because it had happened in real life. Everything had to be organic to these characters and their stories; otherwise, it simply didn’t belong.

You tell the stories of all six women in your novel, but if there's a main character, it's the mother, Irene, who gave up a scientific career to raise her daughters. How did you choose her as the protagonist, and what is it about her story in particular that grabbed you?

I was about a year into the writing when I realized that the story had to begin and end with Irene. My original intention was to give equal weight to all six women, but I came to see that Irene’s emotional journey was, in many ways, the heart of all of their journeys. She is the center of this family, in bridging the generations between her mother and her daughters and in providing the impetus for this reunion. While the other characters are, each for her own reasons, deeply ambivalent about embarking on this tour, Irene desperately wants to reconnect with her family and her ancestral home. Her hopes, her sense of deep disillusionment, and her eventual coming to terms helped form the overall arc of the novel.

One theme of the book is what it means to be Chinese American -- how nobody in America or China is satisfied by the answer to the question "Where are you from?" Did you get any closer to understanding why that question is so hard for everybody during the course of writing the novel?

During the writing of the novel, I did some extensive research into Chinese American history because it was the focus of one of my characters, Kay. For me, it crystallized the ways in which Asian Americans are often still treated as essentially foreign and the patterns of bias that have repeated themselves over two centuries. This surprises many people who don’t experience it, who think of Asians as “honorary whites,” which in itself is a demeaning category.

But I don’t think this question of “Where are you from?” is difficult for every Chinese American. In the novel, only Kay has been preoccupied with it, as a Chinese American activist and as a student of Chinese in Beijing. It’s only when Irene conceives of this tour of their ancestral home that the question is brought to the surface for all six women.

You went to Shanghai on a Fulbright grant to work on A Thread of Sky. What was that like?

It was a shock to land there without family or friends or work or school—basically, with nothing but a few (bad) chapters of my novel. There were plenty of days that I felt isolated and lost. But that’s partly what made it an ideal training ground for a writer. In a way, I had no choice but to immerse myself in my work. It was the only thing that gave structure to my life. Looking back, I’m not sure how else I could have written this book.

How did the publication of the book go? Was it hard to find an agent or publisher?

Publication was something of a saga. I found an agent right out of Iowa, and during my time in Shanghai, she often seemed like the only person who had any stake at all in my writing. Once I completed a draft, she wanted to submit it. I knew in my gut that it wasn’t ready—and I was right. After more rejections than I care to remember, we pulled it back. For months, I couldn’t look at the novel. I felt sick just thinking about it. Eventually, I realized that whether or not I ever published it, I wasn’t finished with it. For a year, I pulled it apart, tossed out hundreds of pages, revised it from beginning to end. When I was finally happy with it—as happy as a writer gets—I sent the revision to my agent, at which point she said she “just didn’t feel it anymore.” So we had a traumatic breakup, and I felt about ready to give up. But after a few months of sending out queries, I found another agent, who sold my novel in about a week.

Do you ever worry about pigeonholing? Like, do you feel as a Chinese American writer that the expectation will be that you'll always write about characters grappling with their cultural identity, for example?

Well, I’m Chinese American, and I’m a writer, so there’s nothing wrong with the label, per se. Sometimes it can be productive, in bringing more attention to underrepresented stories, and sometimes it serves to further ghettoize. I guess I’d argue that any Chinese American story should also be seen as American—and universal. I can only write what moves me, and I think Asian Americans will always be my subject, but I don’t think our stories must be defined by the struggle with cultural identity any more than any American story must be so defined.

Your writing is, I would say, smooth and beautiful and unflinching. Who are some writers who have influenced you?

I love your use of the word “unflinching.” It brings to mind a number of writers: Jean Rhys, Mary Gaitskill, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich. Word by word, I’m awed by the prose of Shirley Hazzard, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, and John Cheever, among many others.

You're at work on your second novel. Can you tell us anything about it? Do you feel more confident this time, or is it like starting over, with square one insecurities and all that?

I can say, somewhat vaguely, that my second novel feels like a big departure from the first. It’s more plot-driven and it has nothing to do with China. In some ways, I feel more confident in that when I have those days of looking at the work and feeling like it’s total crap, I also know that that’s all part of the process. But I think one of the best things about writing is that it forces you to resist complacency.

That also means that it never gets easy.

What was Iowa like for you? What would you say you gained from the program there, if anything?

I would never call Iowa a nurturing environment, but I’m deeply grateful for having undergone the experience. The people who surrounded me there are the smartest bunch that ever surrounded me, and the closest friends I made there will be my ideal readers for life. And though I’ve heard of Iowa described as a competitive place in terms of publication and book deals and whatnot, I actually think there was a purity there that I haven’t found elsewhere—a love of literature for its own sake, a belief in writing as a calling, even the conviction that every single word must count.

You teach at a public school in Brooklyn. How rewarding do you find that, and do you see yourself teaching long term? Should we be worried about "kids these days" or do you think that generation is going to turn out well?

I think certain kids in certain schools are getting an excellent education, and I think we’re grossly failing the huge majority of this generation. And those we’re failing include, of course, a disproportionate number of children of lesser means and children of color—particularly boys. Even setting aside questions of morality and inequality and the legitimacy of this system, I often wonder why us literary types—or those who practice real journalism or fine arts or music or dance—don’t seem to connect this problem to the one we’re always lamenting: the shrinking audience for our art. Where is the next generation of audiences supposed to come from?

So many cultures have held dominance for long periods. Conventional wisdom says the 20th century was the American century, and now the 21st will be the Chinese century. Do you agree? How do you imagine that might play out? Should we all be learning Chinese (and if so, Mandarin or Cantonese)?

I don’t consider myself an expert on China, let alone the global stage, but there’s no question that in this century, China will play a larger role in every area—from foreign policy to business to the environment to art and design—than it did in the last. To the extent that one can make any overarching statement about such a vast entity, China certainly aspires to superpower status and Chinese people take pride in being citizens of a country whose very name translates as the central nation. It wouldn’t hurt anyone to learn Chinese (Mandarin is the dominant dialect, and only becoming more so) or to learn more about China. At the same time, it’s important to note that China is, like any country, complex and multifaceted and contradictory. I think we have a tendency to impose false dichotomies on it—China versus America, traditional versus modern, well-meaning or evil, weak or strong—that become barriers to true understanding.

Check out Deanna's Web site for lots more info:  www.deannafei.com


Colum McCann

I've got Let the Great World Spin next in my queue. Anyone feel like jumping onboard and chatting about it the next week or two or three?

(If so, you can find me in this post! I'll be here talking to myself.)


Danielle Trussoni interview

Released last month, Danielle Trussoni's first novel, Angelology, immediately rocketed into the upper echelons of the New York Times bestseller list. The author, who had already published the highly praised memoir Falling Through the Earth, sat down with us to chat about her remarkable book, a layered, carefully plotted story of a young nun, a group of angel hunters, and the winged ones themselves.

Have you always been fascinated by angels? I never thought a lot about them, but once you start noticing them, they're everywhere. It's like they've been hiding in plain sight for, like, forever.

Actually, I wasn’t at all interested in angels per se. In fact, I had no intention of writing a novel that centered around angels, or a group of angels at all. I knew that I wanted the book to be set in a convent, and so I went to stay at one to do some research. While there, I happened upon a trove of books about angels. Once I started reading about them, I had the same realization that you did: They are everywhere in our culture and have been for a very long time.

What made you decide to create the Nephilim to be as terrifying as they are? These aren't exactly harp-playing cherubs. Something about how their wings can fold back -- through clothes -- thus making them undetectable ... I find unnerving.

The Nephilim in my book are sinister in a distinctly modern fashion. The original Nephilim—a group of half human half angel hybrids that are first mentioned as ‘Giants’ in Genesis 6—were the inspiration for the creatures I imagined. I wanted to invert the typical idea we have of angels as being beneficent guardians. I wanted to create a group of angels that were seductive, alluring, dark, and terrifying.

You're being compared to Dan Brown (most favorably, of course) and even to Umberto Eco. Do you feel like you've written a genre piece, and if so, did you study the "history/archeology thriller" world much before or during the writing of your book? There is something undeniably attractive these days about the idea of, okay, yes, so that's why history has unfolded this way. People want clean answers that reverberate a long way, and they sense they haven't been told the truth.

The comparisons to Dan Brown are coming in because of the treasure-hunt that occurs in Angelology, which is a modern version of the quest narrative, a very old and noble story that has been around for a very long time. I prefer the comparisons to Eco, but the truth of the matter is that marketing departments and book reviewers need to compare books to one another and need to create categories. I didn’t have a program or marketing plan or a genre in mind when I began to write this novel. There are obviously some genre conventions, but there are conventions in almost every variety of novel, or there would not be plot. For me, Angelology is a literary historical narrative that re-imagines an obscure passage in the Bible and posits that there is an alternative reality existing alongside our reality. It is also something of a bildungsroman—the heroine Evangeline develops and grows in a surprising fashion.

Angelology was a real discipline, it turns out. What were its practitioners like in the real world?

Angelology was a branch of theology that was practiced primarily in the medieval era. The purpose of Angelology was to discuss and debate the properties of angels, which could be anything from whether they are material or ethereal beings to which category or sphere an angel belonged to. It’s hard to imagine, but the study of angels was taken very seriously.

How was the book sold and what did you learn from that experience? You ended up with a movie deal to boot.

The book went out to publishers in late January of 2009. Within a few days, my agent (Eric Simonoff) had offers for Canadian rights and German rights. It was unusual to sell foreign rights first, but apparently this prompted New York houses to hurry and soon we had offers from seven houses. I was able to speak with editors on the phone about different approaches to editing the book. I am an intensive rewriter, and so I knew even then that I would want to work with a dedicated editor. After I settled upon an editor (Molly Stern at Viking), my agent called and said that we had offers for film rights from three production companies. Needless to say, it was overwhelming. That the book then went on to sell in 32 countries is still astonishing to me. I love that I will be able to reach readers from all over the world.

Your first book, Falling Through the Earth, was a rabidly praised memoir. Beyond the obvious "true vs. not true," how was writing a novel different from writing your memoir? Did the memoir help you find your voice?

I love that you say “rabidly praised’ because it was just that: it was either loved to distraction or met with venom. There was a lot of praise and a lot of critical attention, but there were also negative reactions. I was working on what would eventually become Falling Through the Earth when I was at Iowa, although it was in lots of different pieces at that time, and the version I wrote while at Iowa was never published. Falling was so emotionally draining for me to write that I knew I wanted to move as far as possible away from it. I wanted to let my imagination take over and see what I could come up with. The voice I found for Angelology is absolutely different than the one I found for Falling, but in the end, I think every new book requires a new voice, a new form, a new way of viewing the universe the characters inhabit. If one doesn’t push oneself into new territory it all becomes rather boring and repetitive.

You're already at work on a sequel: Angelopolis. What can you tell us about that, if anything? I don't think it's giving away too much to note that at the end of Angelology, there is a sense that from a broader perspective, things have barely begun. And one word crept into my mind as I closed the book: Superhero. Have you in fact created a franchise a la Da Vinci Code or Twilight?

Angelopolis is a follow up to Angelology, and will follow Verlaine (the hero of Angelology) and Evangeline (the heroine of Angelology) into the next stage of things. I hope that there is room for expansion, and that I’m still interested in these characters, but I won’t write another book about them if there isn’t. I have to be invested in the character and in the adventures they are having or I wouldn’t be able to write a word.

You split your time between France and the U.S. How do you work that, and how would you compare the two countries nowadays? Where do you live, and what's that like?

I live in the south of France, near Montpellier. I’m able to do this because I have Italian citizenship and am a citizen of the EU, so I can live and work here. I’ve always been something of a nomad. I’ve lived in Japan, Bulgaria, England and now France, but I am particularly in love with France, especially the region I live in, which is kind of like Texas—very wild and down to earth and unpretentious.

What was your experience at the Writers' Workshop like, and how did it shape you as a writer?

My time at Iowa absolutely shaped my career. It taught me the discipline I needed, it taught me how to take criticism graciously (which, believe me, was a hard lesson to learn), and it taught me that other people care about books as much as I do. There was also the luxury of having time to write. I came to the workshop with a newborn baby, and would never have been able to write without the fellowship I was awarded. I loved Jim McPherson and had good experiences with other teachers, but the real value of Iowa for me was the abundance of time I had to work.


Check out the book's Web site.  Keep up with Danielle on her Web site and follow her on Twitter.