Sunday, July 31, 2011

Contemporary Lit

by Wendy

What if writers texted their words
lol omg
Would we remember them?

What if Hemingway were a waterman
shucking oysters instead of words
setting aside the good ones
to slide Chesapeake damp down our throats
to the sound of open shells falling on open shells

And what if Frost had owned a GPS
to map the road not taken

Would he have taken it?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron

by Wendy


Just as the sea, by turns rageful and indifferent, takes hold of those caught in it, so William Styron did with his family, especially his youngest daughter, Alexandra, whose recent memoir, Reading My Father, tells the story of their relationship. It was a relationship dictated by her father’s ferocity, aloofness, and depression, one that she writes of honestly and eloquently.

Of course, it’s not just the relationship that Styron relates, but her journey to understand the man himself. She takes us on that journey as she culls his papers, correspondence, manuscripts, speeches, and other writings, at Duke University, William Styron’s alma mater and home to his archives.

Her narrative begins at her father’s funeral then winds back and forth between the distant past and up to the more recent past when she was still researching him through his papers. In this way we learn more than just a chronological timeline of her father’s life and works and her growing up (and eventually out) of his shadow, but her reflections, insights, longings, and acceptances. (A small example of this is when she listens to him speak at LaGrange College in Georgia, where he is conferred with an honorary degree. During his speech he relates that he was an abysmal student. Styron notes that she “remembers thinking, How come I didn’t know he was such a goddamn bad student? Even I hadn’t flunked physics four times.”)

It seems fitting that she was born shortly before her father’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, was published because his works served as a backdrop to her life. She writes, ". . . each phase of my youth is joined in my mind to the novel my father was writing at the time.” If his novels helped define her youth, his failure to produce a sixth one (his fifth, Sophie’s Choice, was published in 1979) helped serve as landscape later on.

But until she left the house it was his mercurial temperament that set the tone. A drinker, her father was by turns distant and angry, unpredictably turning on Alexandra and the rest of the family. When she was eleven, for example, he turned on her, calling her, “A fucking princess!” because she didn’t bake something for her grandfather. However, as the author came into her own, the father-daughter relationship was changed. “He wasn’t the antihero of my story anymore. The narrative was heading in a more pleasing direction.”

In the end, Reading My Father is her story as much as his. And what a story it is.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mothering narratives

by Susan

You carry a baby in the womb for nine months and then, when they're grown up, they call you collect, when they remember. She has her own life. And that's okay. I've learned to be patient. "Teach only love for that is what you are." The ups and downs; I live with it. And I've got a lot ahead of me and a lot to be proud of. I know: she is the reason I was born.

--Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here

Back in the spring, after my mind had settled into its All Things Kitchens All the Time groove, with room for nothing else, LomaGirl left this request in comments:

I'm looking for mothering narratives- novels, essays, short stories, memoirs. Can you think of any books that you would classify as this? I would really appreciate some help!

And I immediately thought of the ending to the Mona Simpson; Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here"; memoirs by Shirley Jackson and Louise Erdrich and Anne Lamott; Sue Miller's The Good Mother (although I never thought she was);  Jill in Robert Boswell's Crooked Hearts, trying to keep the family together after the eldest son literally destroys their house; the mother of the autistic boy in Anna Mitgutsch's Jakob; Pearl Tull in Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant; the two moms in Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout; the mom in Joanna Cannan's Princes in the Land; and then, my mind went blank.

Since then:

Doris Lessing's The Sweetest Dream

A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book

Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows

Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons, Searching for Caleb, etc.

Jackie Lyden's Daughter of the Queen of Sheba

I think I would classify most of my reading in the They fuck you up, your mum and dad vein, or else the good mothers of literature outside Demeter have failed to leave a mark on me.

Anyone else have some suggestions for LomaGirl? Jackie compiled her own list of the Best Books About Motherhood a couple weeks back and received some suggestions as well (I was particularly chagrined to realize I'd forgotten about Roxanna Robinson's Cost), but I feel we've only touched on the surface of the mothering narratives out there.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Book orientation

by Susan

I never did this particular meme when it was so popular back in the spring. Figured now was the time for it. . .

The book I'm currently reading William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness. With Wendy. Summer is the perfect time for a Southern tale of family dysfunction. Will the second-person narrator that opened the book make a reappearance? Only I would hope so.

The last book I finished Mary Doria Russell's Dreamers of the Day. I loved, loved, loved The Sparrow, but hated its sequel with an equal passion (don't ask why; I don't remember). Refused to even look at another Russell until Doc came along, which I couldn't pass up because it was a western. I loved, loved, loved it. Now Russell is officially off my ignore list.

The next book I want to read Two books, actually. Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf and Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America. The Carey is for book club and the Duncan, waiting for me at the library, has a long waiting list so I won't be able to renew it.

The last book I bought Nuances here. Last book purchased was Stephane Audeguy's The Theory of Clouds. Last book downloaded to the Kindle was Vladimir Sorokin's Ice Trilogy. The last book bought that has shown up in my mailbox is Tim Pears's Disputed Land. Still waiting for Jane Harris's Gillespie and I. I bought the Harris before the Audeguy and the Pears. Such is life when you buy books through the Book Depository.

The last book I was given C. gave me a copy of Buck Brannaman's The Faraway Horses. (All horses seem very faraway right about now.)

The last book I checked out from the library From the public library, Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. From the university library, Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River.

What was inside the last package a publisher/publicist sent me Five galleys from Random House. The one I'm most likely to read is Aravind Adiga's Last Man in Tower. I doubt I'll have it read by its September pub date, though.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

by Wendy



Oh sure, I'd heard of Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, the shoot-out at the OK Corral, and Tombstone, Arizona before reading Doc by Mary Doria Russell, but they were names and places that held no substance, like placeholders at a dinner party, not the guests themselves. Russell's gift in this work of historical fiction is a well-told story tethered in fact, but allowed to graze.

Rooted in what facts the author could unearth (she writes of her source material in the notes at the end of the book), the novel takes us on the detailed journey of Dr. John Henry (Doc) Holliday whose fate rests not with Russell, but with history. What makes Doc so engaging is Russell's portrayal not of "[A] cold and casual killer," as he was caricatured by the newspapermen of his day, but of a man who is at the mercy of tuberculosis; a man who is an accomplished pianist, dentist, and card shark; a man in love with a whore; a man who is by turns gracious and enraged; and a man whose relationship with the Earp brothers is not so infamous as what legend would have us believe.

Doc is cleverly divided into chapters using poker terms--poker and a game called faro are integral to the story. And just like in cards, the author lays out her cast of characters in a section called "The Players," where she differentiates the fictional ones by putting their names in italics. This section is a particularly helpful resource.

My only complaint is the novel leaves off in April, 1879, just as Doc is about to leave Dodge City, with the final chapter focusing on Kate, Doc's lover, and summarizing the rest of the main characters' lives. I only hope Russell considers expanding that short narrative into a full-fledged follow-up novel. Please, Mary, play one more hand.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

I'm back and I have big news

by Susan

Okay, actually, I'm just sort of back. We're in the midst of a kitchen remodel, a kitchen remodel that I'd hoped would be finished just about now. But, as these things often go, it's taking longer than expected. The cabinetmaker (the second cabinetmaker; the first one hightailed after he was discovered stealing from the company) is now saying he'll have the cabinets completed in three weeks, but the kitchen designer is skeptical and advised me to plan on it taking more like five. Since we're doing the demolition ourselves, including removing the old soffits and ceiling; installing the recessed lights; replacing the ceiling and sheetrocking the new soffits (which should not resemble jutting eyebrows this time around), repainting the kitchen and the connecting family room, putting down subflooring,  and no doubt a few other things I'm forgetting, we probably do need five more weeks instead of three. At least I can wean myself off the kitchen porn now that everything's been selected; that should free up some time to resume blogging. I have spent much more time than is healthy on kitchen porn the past three months and I'm tired of second guessing all my choices.

But the big news I have has nothing to do with the kitchen. You've no doubt seen me mention my good friend W. on occasion, with whom I've been reading and discussing books for a good twenty years. Last year Wendy helped me get through Ulysses;  this year we've read The Waves and Skippy Dies and A Visit from the Goon Squad and In Persuasion Nation and Reading My Father as well as a whole slew of Somerset Maughams just last month. We're in the early pages of William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness right now.

Wendy's an accomplished writer, of both fiction and poetry, and she's currently hard at work on a novel. I am thrilled to report that she has agreed to become a co-writer here on the blog. Her first review will post Sunday evening and she's hoping to keep to an early-in-the-week schedule hereafter, although I told her it's perfectly okay to post whenever and however often she desires.

I've given Wendy a long annotated list of blogs that I expect she'll enjoy as much as I do. Since she's totally new to blogging, though, it may take her awhile to make the rounds and keep you all straight in her mind. Please feel free to stop by over the next few days and introduce yourselves to her. I can't think of a better way of helping her to feel a part of this wonderful book blogging community.