- Last month I read How Fiction Works by James Wood. Wood is a novelist, but is best known as a literary critic for The New Yorker. I really liked the book. Wood writes about a variety of different elements involved in writing fiction: narration, character development, detail, language, dialogue, and even truth. I particularly liked the first section which focused on “free indirect” style of writing — a new concept for me. I also liked the section on language. Some of the Amazon reviews of the book are negative (most are positive). The negative one’s point out that Wood only focuses on literary fiction, downplays the importance of plot, and is a pompous, elitist windbag. There may be some truth to these comments, but I couldn’t put the book down.
- I polished off another Murakami novel, this time Dance Dance Dance. In it we follow the nameless character that we met in A Wild Sheep Chase. I really like Murakami — the weirdness, the prose, the strange sex, the mundane details. The plot in this one is thin, but I loved just living in the moment; Murakami can lead anywhere and I’ll follow. It proved, to me at least, that Wood is right — plot can be overrated.
- Over Christmas I tried to tackle Kafka’s last and unfinished novel, The Castle. The story resolves around a land surveyor who is hired by a town’s castle, but he never meets his bosses, never gets to the castle, and never is given a concrete assignment. Classic Kafka — the mind-numbing craziness of modern bureaucracy. Although I appreciated the book, I only read about two-thirds of it. Why? The prose. It was so dense it wasn’t a joy to read. Maybe I’ll try to finish later, but I feel I got the point.
- I recently listened to Miranda July’s short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You. It was amazingly good. She reads them herself. The stories are typically a little off-beat, contain one or more weird sex scenes, and the characters are almost always looking to find love. She’s a talented woman.
- I just started reading Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith. The book is the first of a trilogy. He’s offering it for free as a download in the hopes that you’ll buy books two and three. I’m about sixty pages in and based just on what I’ve read so far, you can sign me up for book #2. I dig Smith’s work.
- Finally, I was saddened to learn that Roger Ebert died this week. I grew-up in Chicago, and Ebert and Siskel were established parts of the landscape there. I never watch a movie without first reading Ebert’s review. Where will I turn now?
Posts Tagged ‘Book Review’
Posted in Novel Review, Short Story Reviews, tagged Anthony Neil Smith, Book Review, fiction, Haruki Murakami, James Wood, Kafka, Miranda July, Novels, reading, Roger Ebert, short story, writing on April 6, 2013 | Leave a Comment »
Last Saturday night my good friend Greg Bardsley had a book launch at Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park for his new novel Cash Out. A good time was had by all! I’m a big fan of Greg’s work in general, and Cash Out specifically. Following is the review that I posted on Good Reads:
Cash Out is a wonderful combination of the bizarre, hysterical, and gruesome. I was first turned on to Greg Bardsley’s writing a few years ago when I read his short story “Upper Decking.” Amazing! He has a very distinct voice: funny, somewhat crime centric, off-beat characters, a little violence thrown in. I agree with another review that I could see Cash Out being turned into a movie. A future cult classic, like The Big Lebowski. Buy it. Read it.
I’ve been a fan of Alix Ohlin’s work since 2009, when I read a story she’d written called “Only Child” that appeared in Ploughshares. I’ve since read a good deal of what she’s published, including her first short story collection, Babylon and Other Stories, her first novel, The Missing Person, and I’ve now read her latest novel, Inside. She also has a new short story collection called, Signs and Wonders. I’ve read a few stories in the new collection, but have yet to buy it. I’ve enjoyed all her work, and I think she has a particular talent for writing short stories. What I like about her writing is the prose – it’s both lucid and florid – and her plot structures. She tends to use fairly traditional plots (not a lot of experimental writing) but she does like to jump around in time, often abruptly. I dig it.
I just finished her new novel, Inside, and it is very good. The story is centered on four characters: Grace, Anne (aka Annie), Mitch, and Tug. It follows them over a 12-year period, from 1994 – 2006. A theme that runs throughout a lot of Ohlin’s story telling is people trying to connect, often romantically, but not always. Of course, since Ohlin writes literary fiction her characters don’t typically achieve the connection they want. (I can hear my mother – “Why are all the stories you read so sad? What’s wrong with happy endings?”). Inside definitely covers that “connection” territory, but it is primarily focused on what Ohlin says is, “What it means to be a good Samaritan. What drives us to try and help another person. And what the emotional complications of that are.” Each of the four characters try to help someone (or more than one person), and in each case the helper is hurt by the effort. Again, my mother: “Why to sad?”
One of my favorite chapters is focused on Anne, a sexy actress, who moves from Manhattan to Hollywood to join the cast of a TV sitcom. It’s a riot! I had a feeling that Ohlin really enjoyed writing it, and I suspect that was her easiest chapter to crank out. But that’s just a guess.
In another chapter, Tug recounts his efforts as a relief worker in Rwanda. Before reading Inside I had just finished Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, and the Tug/Rwanda chapter reminded me of the scene in “Wind-Up” where an older man recounts his role in WWII and tells a story about a man being skinned alive. But I suspect I’m the only person in the world who would make that connection!
So, I was planning to write my blog entry on Inside last week. I did a Google news search of “Alix Ohlin” and discovered an extremely negative review of the book that ran in The New York Times. There was another article in The Wall Street Journal that said that review had fomented something of a firestorm on Twitter. Despite the fact that I work in Silicon Valley and I’ve written more than a few speeches for tech execs on the wonders of social media, I had never used Twitter before (don’t tell anyone). So, I got an account, read a few tweets and links to blogs/aritcles that all discussed whether the tone of the review was appropriate or not. Interesting stuff. I’ll leave it to others to come to their own conclusions on the review’s tone and approach. But, most of those articles and blogs that expressed offense to the review would include a line or two that went something like this: “I haven’t read Inside, and I’m not familiar with Ohlin’s work, so I can’t really comment on whether it was accurate or not…” Well, to me that was the problem with the review: its conclusion was wrong. Inside is a good book. Alix Ohlin is a very good writer. She clearly gives a lot of thought to the prose she uses, and carefully thinks out her plots. We’re all welcome to our opinions, and that’s mine.
The prose in Al Riske’s first novel, Sabrina’s Window, is clear and simple and elevates the book into something truly wonderful. He’s apparently an advocate of the Iceberg Theory of writing, where what is left unsaid is often more important than what Riske chooses to tell us.
The story revolves around two characters: Joshua (a 17-year old boy) and Sabrina (a 31-year old woman). The book begins when Joshua accidentally breaks the window of Sabrina’s home in Taos, New Mexico. They soon form a somewhat unlikely friendship; platonic, yes, but also with hints that there is a desire on both sides to cross over to something more. Sabrina becomes something of a mentor for Joshua, a guide into the confusing world of adulthood. The book frequently changes perspectives, so in one section you follow Joshua, then Sabrina, then the two together, then Joshua again, etc. I’ve always been a fan of this type of narrative, and it works very well here.
Sabrina’s Window is actually Riske’s second book. His first, Precarious, was a collection of short stories. Like a lot of very good writers, Riske’s work has a distinctive stamp. There is often a young man (really a boy) who struggles as he enters adulthood. He’s often mystified by women. Riske’s young men are typically smart, sincere, interested in writing, and perhaps conflicted when it comes to religion. Ah, but it’s Riske’s women who I find more interesting! They’re strong, independent, often sexually bold, and blessed with razor-sharp intellects. They remind me of the female leads in the romantic comedies from the 1940′s. Riske is clearly a man who loves women, and it comes through in his writing.
So a big thumbs up from me. And I’m definitely looking forward to what Mr. Riske comes up with next.
Posted in Short Story Reviews, tagged Book Review, fiction, Jim Shepard, Magical Realism, New Yorker, One Story, Ploughshares, publishing, reading, short story, Transgressive Fiction, writing on October 24, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
A couple of years ago I decided to subscribe to one new literary journal a year. I’ve been reading The New Yorker and it’s short stories for a long time now, but I wanted to see what else is out there.
In 2009, my publication of choice was One Story. It gets its name because they send you one new short story a month. They’ll only ever publish one story per author, so they are committed to uncovering new talent. The stories are consistently good, although I’ve found that I actually prefer to get a book of stories all at once, instead of one at a time. But it is an interesting approach.
This year I’ve been getting Ploughshares. I really, really like it. They publish three issues a year, and each issue has a guest editor. The guest editors “are invited to solicit up to half of their issues, with the other half selected from unsolicited manuscripts screened for them by staff editors.” This guest editor approach is cool, because it gives each issue its own theme or style.
Jim Shepard edited the Fall 2010 issue. I’m sorry to say that I had never heard of Shepard, but I love the stories in his issue. The one’s I’ve read so far (I’m about halfway done) are offbeat. I suppose you could classify at least some of them a “magical realism.” They are all very interesting and extremely well written. It sounds like Shepard’s work can also be offbeat. In the Q&A with Shepard, he is quoted as saying:
In grad school my thesis adviser, John Hawkes, spent a good deal of time nudging me away from the niche in which I seemed to be most comfortable – wry suburban comedy, featuring wry suburban children – and toward the weird. It was by far the most valuable instinct he has helped me realize: that instinct to ferret out and further distress the unexpected strangeness wherever it surface in my work. He meant mostly those bizarre and unexpected psychological states, or insights that might pop up in the middle of an otherwise naturalistic story, but was perfectly happy to have me take it further, too, into narrative realms.
I think the quote helps give a sense of the types of stories included in this issue. If you like your fiction a little funky, then I definitely suggest you buy the Fall 2010 Ploughshares.
My subscription to Ploughshares is about to expire, and next year I’m going to try The Kenyon Review.
What makes a great novel? Of course, the answer is subjective. We each have different tastes, our own opinions.
I’m now reading American Pastoral, a novel by Philip Roth, in large part because a few authors whom I really like have called it, “The best novel written in the last decade.”
The book has 423 pages. I’m on page 308. Frankly, I would like to put it aside and read something more enjoyable. It isn’t that I hate the book. I do like it. I definitely appreciate what Roth accomplished. I just don’t love the darn thing. I’m not dying to steal some free moments from my wife and kid and work so I can read a few pages. In fact, I have to push myself to read it. It could be me. Maybe I’m just not in the book reading frame of mind right now? But I am committed to finishing it!
But I don’t want to turn off other people from reading it. Here is a positive review I read on Amazon:
“American Pastoral” is indeed a special book. It displays none of the often unsettling preoccupation with sex that some of Roth’s other books do. This novel examines the rise and fall of a man with a life that all his acquaintances thought was blessed–a start athlete and war hero, who goes on successfully to run his father’s glove factory. A non-religious Jew, he marries a pretty Catholic girl (the former Miss New Jersey!), lives in a nice house, and has a pretty daughter, Merry–slips comfortably, in other words, into mainstream America.
Merry grows up, though, to be a sociopath, a fanatic, who as part of the general 60′s counterculture movement, commits a terrible act of violence, and has to go into hiding…for the rest of her life. Her act destroys the foundations of Swede’s world. We watch him and those close to him slowly disintegrate, emotionally and spiritually. Their decline is not a decline in material fortunes, but it is slow and grueling nevertheless.
Roth writes like an angel. Much of this book is expository, written in precise, evocative, sometimes Faulkneresque, sometimes academic prose. The characters are vivid, immediate, and believable. This is also an idea book, though, and often the ideas are left abstract…which isn’t bad. Roth doesn’t try to force answers where perhaps none exist.
This book is truly a treat.