Monday, January 31, 2011

All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang

I first learned about this book while browsing through the publisher’s catalogue (W. W. Norton & Company). Reading the description, it sounded like the kind of literary book that appeals to me. As described in the publisher’s catalogue, two of the central questions of the book are “What is the hidden burden of early promise?” and “What are the personal costs of a life devoted to the pursuit of art?” Both of these are questions I find to be very intriguing, so when I saw a copy of the book in the library I grabbed it.

The book tells the story of a writer, specifically a poet, named Roman Morris. In the beginning of the book, Roman, age 28, has given up his high-paying job in Boston in investment banking or something like that to move to this unnamed but presumably Midwestern college town to attend a prestigious writing program at a school which in the book is simply called the School. There he comes to know their hot-shot poet faculty member, who happens to be a beautiful and cryptic 46-year old female poet named Miranda.

Knowing that the author, Lan Samantha Chang, is Director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, which is the most prestigious MFA in the country, I was on the lookout for insider-y morsels in this book. Is the poet/teacher Miranda Sturgis, for example, modeled on someone we might know? Are the students, or types of students, represented in the book, reflective of the student body at Iowa? How about Roman’s relationship with Miranda? Based on an actual incident? Perhaps even the author’s own? Alas, being a total I0wa outsider, I’ll have to leave these gossipy ruminations to some better-informed reviewer.

I did notice, however, that Chang does address the contentious “can writing be taught?” question. I’ve never attended an MFA program, but I run a Master of Arts program in publishing (at Rosemont College--more info see:, and I work very closely with an affiliated MFA program, so I know something about how MFAs work. I’m aware of how MFA programs in Creative Writing have proliferated over the last decade or so (as written about by Edward J. Delaney in The Atlantic: I also know that one of the most frequently-asked questions about these programs is: “Can good writing be taught?”

In looking back on his graduate school experience and comparing it to his now-current position as a professor, Roman reflects:

“Nowadays, Roman thought, the students expected not only to be noticed, but that their work—however absent the vision, however awkward the execution—be discussed with the assumption that the goals were far-reaching and accomplishment inevitable. Moreover they felt that they were owed these services, as their professors’ end of an official transaction. Many believed that writing could be ‘taught’ by the dissemination of ‘craft,’ and that anyone with the smallest speck of ability or desire was entitled to this dissemination. . . . One could write with utter mediocrity, but one had the same right to be treated as if greatness, or at the very least, publication, were imminent.” (pp. 146-7)

Somewhat bitter thoughts from the mind of our main character, thoughts that certainly reflect feelings of real writers and teachers and make it clear if not where the author stands, at least what position fictional representative takes on this issue—good writing? Either ya got it or ya don’t.

Late in the book, while thinking over a recent encounter with an ex-classmate who once hated him, we have this from Roman: “He knew, with a finality that crept upon him as imperceptibly as breathing, that he himself, in some undefinable moment, had passed that turning point when regret had overtaken expectation.” (p. 191) Having also reached a point in my life where certain expectations must be sacrificed, literary moments such as these speak to me. To me, this moment Chang describes is a sad one, for regret is a heavy load. But more than just how this moment speaks to me personally, I also think in some ways it defines an important theme of this book.

All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost is a book that follows the trajectory of a poet, or simply, of a character, from the moment he first begins to attempt following his life’s dream, through the years that follow, leaving the reader to watch the inevitable ups and downs, judgments, actions, errors, and consequences that ensue, and ultimately to judge the character as he judges himself. Some readers will doubtless be more sympathetic than others (and than I) to Roman and his choices and actions toward his teacher Miranda, his wife Lucy, his friend Bernard, and his son, Avery.

A book about poets needs, I think, to convey a poetic use and appreciation of language, and this book does – the novel is replete with sentences that sound like they dropped out of a poem. This literary decorativeness, however, along with a third-person voice that is spare and concise, kept me from getting too involved with the characters’ lives and made me watch and care about them only from afar. I never came to feel emotionally invested in the book.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Checking It Twice

For many of the books I have written about lately, I read them in galley form, meaning I read a pre-publication edition. It’s fun to read a book before most other people have, and this also means that, in writing about the books here, I’m ahead of the game. So when the books I read and blog about are actually officially published and the reviews start to come in, it’s always interesting to me to see how my opinion stacks up against the reviewers (i.e. the people who get paid to give their opinions about a book!).

Jonathan Evison, it turns out, is getting raves. Critics seem to be love, love, loving his book! Looks like I’m turning out, so far, to be the sole voice with anything negative to say about this book. How do I feel about this? First of all, as far as the author is concerned, I’m happy for him. He’s clearly a good guy and a hardworking author. And, hey, I’m ok with being out there alone on this. I think the author attempted something terrific, and accomplished a lot with the book. I still think, however, that it’s too sprawling and needed to be reined in some more. I stand by my review!

West of Here does, however, have a fantastic web presence, which I'm sure is contributing to the book getting all the press attention its getting. Check out the link below and follow it to other links:

I have Evison’s earlier book, All About Lulu, on top of my reading list, so I will be reading and blogging about that one too.

As far as the reviews of The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard, here’s one I’ve founds far--The Washington Post calls it “an impressive debut” also saying:

“I wish its plural narrator were more consistently convincing. . . . By the time these guys approach 50, those original differences in class, conscience and ability have scattered them across the spectrum of happiness and success in completely plausible ways. But this stitched-together narrator pulls at its own seams; such diverse men couldn't speak in a choral voice.”

I’d agree with that. But anyway, I’m not really a book reviewer. Sometimes I review, but I’m also interested in other things related to the book – things about the author, how it relates to other books, how its readers react to it. I’m looking at the cultural life of books. And if I agree or disagree with other people writing about the book, well, as Mom would say “That’s what makes chocolate and vanilla.”

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Back to Brooklyn

My friend Susan Barr-Toman recommended a novel to me called Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín.

But before I even start, let me first mention that my friend Susan Barr-Toman is the author of a wonderful recently-published novel with a fabulous title: When Love was Clean Underwear. Please do read it! (And she’s another Philly Writer!) Learn more about her and her book at:

Now back to Brooklyn (where I used to live)… Susan was right, it’s a great book. I really enjoyed reading it and admired the writing.

Tóibín’s writing is very simple and straightforward. Not quite Hemingwayesque, not gruff or brusque, but without adornment. He simply tells what is happening, and what happened next, and what she did, and what he did, and what she thought about, and what she thought he thought about, until the simple accrual of information creates a story, and once you’ve gotten into Part II of this story you begin to realize that this plain and plodding writing style is delivering a rather complex story. And that’s how life happens, right? One things happens, and then another and another, until you have a story. And when the first things happens, you don’t know the next thing is coming, or when it will come, if ever, and what it will be if it does come, so you just go along and do as you’re told, or not, and get through things, and wake up and go to work and come home and go to sleep and wake up for work again the next day, and maybe talk to people and make friends and fall in love, or maybe not.

I haven’t read other works of Tóibín’s, so I don’t know if this is how he always writes, but it was very interesting and enlightening for me to read this type of writing. Enlightening because it made me realize maybe I don’t have to make writing a novel into such a big deal – I can just write what happens and what happens next. Interesting because I’m usually someone who goes for the writerly writers, the Nicole Krausses of the world with their perfect word choice and their endlessly poetic sentences, and Tóibín is of another variety. And yet, I like this very, very much.

I do plan to read more of this author’s work. He has a new collection of short stories just published. Here’s a link to the NYT review if you’re interested…

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard

Next up, the final book from my last “Sneak Peek” class: The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard (Ecco/HarperCollins, 1/25/11 pub date).

As I was reading this book, I was creating a picture in my mind of the author and what she must be like. I knew nothing about her as yet, hadn’t even looked at her photo on the back flap of the book.

I thought of her as a suburban housewife. There are several reasons I thought of her this way. First of all, I am a suburban housewife. That is not all I am, but it is a big part of who and what I am. And because I am currently trying to write a novel, and part of my novel takes place in suburbia, and Pittard’s book also takes place in suburbia, I was thinking perhaps she was curious about suburbia for the same reason I and countless writers before us have been, which is the supposition that “things are not what they seem,” the belief that under the often-placid and homogenized surface, things are happening that aren’t known about, aren’t expected, and are probably interesting to think and write about. I assumed this was her exploration of the undercurrents of suburban life. I decided that she, like me, must be a suburban housewife exploring life in the suburbia she sees around her.

I also thought it interesting that Pittard decided to explore this concept through the boys, through male voices – well, one plural male voice, using the sometimes awkward and unusual 1st person plural point of view. Interesting that she is wondering what the boys are thinking about all this that’s going on. Challenging, as a female writer.

Then I got to the end of the book and I looked at her photograph and I decided I was completely wrong about her. Judging by what I see in the picture, she is not a suburban housewife. She looks a bit too urban and hipster. (No circles beneath her eyes, no evidence of a yoga mat.) Yes, yes, I know—things are not what they seem to be, but still. Perhaps her interest in suburbia comes from her upbringing. I would be curious to know. But I do think she shares with me and many others the compelling curiosity about a place (i.e. suburbia) that has a habit of stunting and torturing those who grow up there.

Pittard comes to us with some impressive literary credentials, having, among other things, won the Amanda David Highwire Fiction Award. Amanda Davis, if you don’t know, was a talented writer who died tragically young in a plane crash, and I highly and emphatically recommend her novel, the ironically titled Wonder When You’ll Miss Me. I’ve taught it and read it several times and, while it’s not for everyone (right, Lauren?), I think it’s pretty spectacular.

The premise of Fates is that a popular beautiful high school girl disappears one Halloween evening. The boys, and the men they later become, never stop thinking about her, obsessing about her, wondering what became of her and making up stories about her fate.

My readers in the class and I had a bit of trouble keeping straight all the various boys in the book – it became somewhat confusing at times to distinguish them given the plural all-purpose authorial voice. Also given the many voices and characters, I did wonder, where is the author’s heart here? Is it in any one particular character? Nora, the girl who disappeared (and whom we never directly meet)? Sissy, the sister left behind? One, more or all of the boys? As a reader, I wasn’t finding any particular allegiance myself. In some places my sympathy landed harder than others (for example with some of the mothers of the boys), but I made no real direct connections. I do, however, find interesting the concept of writing a book that hinges around a character (the missing girl) who isn’t even in the book.

If I try to distill the point of the book down to one lesson, it is in this quote from the final chapter: “At the end of the day, we find ourselves somewhat unprepared . . . for the obvious realization that this—this, all around us—is our life.” No fireworks, no starring roles, just the everyday that ekes forward inexorably until the days run out (that last quote being mine!).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Author Jonathan Evison Answers Questions

Jonathan Evison, author of the forthcoming novel West of Here, kindly took the time to answer a few of my questions about his work...

LR: To me this book feels like an attempt at writing your very own great American novel, with its epic proportions and scope, the exploration of the West, man vs. nature, and so forth. Am I right about this? Did you have other models, perhaps some American classics, in mind? Why is it I keep thinking about Gatsby when I read your book?

JE: Gatsby, huh? Interesting. I suppose some of my nineteenth century characters like Mather and Thornburgh are chasing the green light, so to speak, so I can see that. Whitman and Emerson were on my mind a lot while I was writing and researching West of Here, and I guess it doesn't get much more American than that. Foreign publishers are beginning to come around, but at first they all opined that the book was "too big" and" too American", which made me sorta' perversely proud, because yeah, I set out to write a big American novel.

LR: Who do you think is your ideal reader? Do you think this book skews more toward a particular gender?

JE: I'd drive myself crazy if I thought about any reader beyond myself-- which has been pretty convenient over the long haul, since having readers beyond myself is still a relatively new phenomenon. That said, I never forget the reader, er, um, that is, I never forget myself.

LR: How does it feel right now, a few weeks pre-pub? Are you excited? Nervous? Going on tour?

JE: Starting in mid-February, I do like 28 events in 20 cities in 31 days, or something insane like that. I'm afraid to look at my itinerary. It promises to be exhilarating and exhausting. BTW, anyone know any good bars in Salt Lake City?

LR: Have you started a next book yet? If so, can you tell us anything about it?

JE: My next novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, is finished and will be published by Algonquin, probably in 2013. I would characterize it as a novel of the heart. I'm working on a new book, too, but it's too early to frame it.

LR: What are your writing habits? Do you have a strict routine or is it more random?

JE: I have an 18 month old boy, and he's a real pistol, thus my writing routine is sporadic at the moment, but I make time daily, and it it usually comes out of my sleep. I've developed some new and highly efficient habits. Like texting myself ideas ten times a day, or carrying my manuscript around with me, or a notebook--everything short of writing while I drive.

LR: How did your book find its way to Algonquin (a wonderful press and known for fine literary fiction)?

JE: Algonquin was one of a handful of houses who made offers. They were not the highest bidder, but I felt they were the best publisher, and they've proved me right time and again. It's inspiring to watch a team of publishers work so effectively together. I truly can't imagine a better publisher, both in terms of publishing practices and editorial voice.

LR: I love the story you told about how you burned your many rejection notes and got your book accepted by a publisher 3 weeks later. Sounds very Feng Shui. Any advice on dealing with rejection for other writers?

JE: If rejection notices are anything more than a minor annoyance, it's time to ask yourself why you're doing this. I licked envelopes and wrote query letters for over a decade, simply as a matter of due diligence. I write because I must. Everything after that is an act of conceit. Don't get me wrong, I'm conceited, but that's not why I do the work. I do the work to discover. That said, I highly encourage writers to throw their rejection letters away unless they offer some sort of substantive editorial insight. It can't possibly help the cause to have all that rejection nearby. I guess that is pretty Feng Shui. I should go clean my office.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Another Brief Reading Interlude

Here’s another quick entry and a plug for a local writer. Robin Black was recommended to me by Richard Wertime, Director of Graduate English at Arcadia University and author of the memoir Citadel on the Mountain: A Memoir of Father and Son (making this entry actually a double plug for two local writers). Black is a Philadelphia writer and an Arcadia grad, so they’re quite proud of her short story collection, recently published by Random House, If I loved you, I would tell you this. This is another locally-popular book for which I was on a huge waiting list at the library, and it took months to come. I’ve only read three of the stories so far, so I can’t really tell you too much about the book, but I find her work to be well-written, and I particularly liked the story “Immortalizing John Parker.”

The ongoing life and existence of the short story collection is a matter of much debate among those who debate literary topics. Is short story writing merely an exercise for MFA students? (It is likely that Black, a graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA program, may very well have written these stories, or some of them, while a student, since this is her first published book.) Does the reading public read short story collections? Do you?

Certainly it is harder for new writers to interest publishers in story collections than it is in a novel, and there are fewer mainstream magazine outlets for short stories than there once were. From what writers I’ve spoken to tell me, a short story is much harder to write than a novel. It’s harder to tell a story in a shorter space—fewer pages to develop your story, fewer words to get your point across.

Here’s an interesting piece on the topic from former NYTBR editor Charles McGrath from a few years back but still relevant:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Reading Interlude

Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir
by Wendy Burden (Gotham Books)

I read an article (I think it was in Vogue) about this new memoir by Wendy Burden, scion of the Vanderbilts and other ancestors of huge and ostentatious wealth. The article mentioned Burden’s family and her upbringing, and promised lots of dirt to prove, as Fitzgerald famously said, “the rich are very different from you and me.” I requested the book from my library and it took MONTHS for me to get it, so it must be extremely popular (whether this is due to the popularity of the subject matter or the influence of reviews in Vogue I know not). Anyway, I read the first fifty pages and found her writing style to be very entertaining and extremely witty. She has good storytelling skills and interweaves the family history in colorful, informative, and entertaining chunks throughout. And now the book is due at the library and they will not let me renew it because it has been “requested by another patron” (hey, clue to library – buy another copy!), so I shall return it with the rest unread. Not really my sort of book after all, but I recommend it as a lively gossipy read if that’s what you’re looking for!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Plot Thickens

In my last post I left you hanging, about to present my review of West of Here by Jonathan Evison. And so I was about to do, until yesterday morning an unexpected Facebook message arrived in my inbox from none other than Jonathan Evison. While I hope for a large readership for this blog, somehow it had never occurred to me that the author whose book I was reviewing might be one of those readers! But I guess, like many authors (neurotic and insecure, myself among them!) he’s got a Google Alert going and that’s how he found my post. I also assume that, just weeks before the official publication of his book, he’s eagerly, perhaps anxiously awaiting reviews and other notice.

He wrote quite a nice note—here’s what he said:

. . . uh oh, that last line in your blog sounds cryptic! . . .fingers crossed! . . . whatever you think of the book, thanks for the coverage, and keep blogging about books!

I wrote back also said “uh oh!” and he replied “no need to be nervous, i have thick skin “ He also agreed to do a blog interview with me, so watch for that soon! But first I’ll delay no longer and present my review.

Jonathan Evison has set out to write the Great American Novel. And while he claims in an interview that this literary entity is a beleaguered beast, he is clearly in pursuit of the creature, and aims to take the thing hostage, even should it prove to be as large, elusive and mythical as the Sasquatch tracked with fervor by the character Krig. With a cry of “Westward ho!” he sets off to write a novel of exploration and history, seeking to excavate the American character.

Evison says he is very interested in character. So much so, it seems, that he can’t seem to stop creating characters, and his sprawling new book is chock full of them, so much so that the reader loses track. Let bring you into the scene of my Sneak Peek class. There we were, a group of women sitting around a room, tentatively holding our hefty copies of West of Here (the book weighs in at 486 pages), looking at each other, wondering who would jump in first.

I was, however, forewarned. Two days before the meeting, I had received an e-mail from one member of the class—let’s call her Sally for now. Sally, a soft-spoken 50-plus woman, practically ranted: “This book has 49 characters –and I’m only on page 200!!!”

I knew what we were in for this evening, so I plunged right in with the question I usually never ask until a book has been thoroughly dissected and evaluated: “So, what’d you think?” Collective deep breath, more silence. I decide to help alleviate their discomfort. Since I’m the one who chose the book, they’re hesitant to hurt my feelings (why me? I didn’t write the book!). I let them off the hook: “You didn’t like it did you?” I heard a deep collective sigh of relief.

If you do have 49 characters by page 200, according to Sally’s count (and I know her to be thorough and scrupulous!), even in 486 pages, one does run the risk of failing to develop these characters, painting them in the broad brushstrokes that often lead to stereotype. Hence in the 19th century portion of the book (the book goes back and forth between the historic period and the contemporary one), we have Gertie, the whore with the heart of gold, complete with requisite red hair. We have Eva, the “liberated” woman, who eschews marriage to the father of her child, and regularly spouts slogans/diatribes about, well, the 19th century version of “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Back in 2006, we meet Hillary Burch (and we’re really not sure why we meet her or what she’s actually doing in the novel), who, in shapeless khaki pants and cropped hair, cringes at the cruel high-schoolers who call her “Lesbo.” Although later we’ll find her confessing a recent revelation to her mother, who is the tight-skirted, tight-titted, and tight-lipped (thanks to Botox) type, “I like women, Mom.” Then there’s Rita, who, while she shows a greater depth and originality, still comes packaged with the requisite drunken abusive father on the “Rez” followed by drunken abusive husband and then boyfriend in the trailer park legacy.

Now, as good readers as we are in this group and skilled at analyzing a book, we don’t always agree, but this time we did. Everyone felt there was just too much in this book and it needed to be reined in. Various readers recommended characters they felt could easily have been dispensed with, and while we didn’t agree on that level of detail, we felt that this book was written by a talented writer who perhaps needed a bit more support and more red-pencil wielding by his editor (see what I mean – we only mention the editors when they don’t do their jobs!).

I will suggest that we may have had one major handicap – our gender. As I looked around the room I asked them – do you think we feel this way because we are women? I asked because in many ways it’s a very macho book, lots of wooly-bearded explorers roughing it in the wild and muddy frontier towns with rugged lifestyles. And gender may be a factor, we don’t know. We’ll have to wait for the male readers and reviewers to chime in.

In summary, I would have to say for me the operative adjective to apply to West of Here is “sprawling.” It’s too big, there’s too much plot and too many characters, and the author is not in control of them all. But I do admire the author's ambitions and I respect and support his belief in the Great American Novel. (I've just requested his earlier book All About Lulu from the library, so I'll learn more about his writing when I read that.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Beyond Page One of Evison's WEST OF HERE

After writing my Page One analysis of West of Here by Jonathan Evison, the next thing I did was to do some research about the author. My Sneak Peek class members like to know about the author and since, according to the publisher’s description, the author is “a major new voice in American fiction” and the book is “storytelling on the grandest scale,” I was curious about him as well.

Turns out there’s a lot to be found about Evison online (see very cool book website at, and I watched all of the many video interviews that exist of him online. The more I listened to him talk, the more I liked him. He’s smart and has a wry sense of humor, and he’s earnest and passionate about writing. He seems very knowledgable about his peers, i.e. other contemporary American novelists, and he seems to want to give them what they call in elementary school a “put up” (as opposed to a put down) whenever possible. Having watched him time after time in his pin stripe suit and jaunty Blues Brother-esque fedora, either with martini, beer, or bunny rabbit as prop, Evison comes across as a good guy who, after a life-time of odd jobs, is pleased as punch to be making his living as a writer.

Another notable thing in the promotion of this book is the way the role of the editor is played up. Editors in the book biz tend to stay behind the scenes, and reviewers only tend to bring them out from behind the curtain if they think they’ve not done their job well. The publisher, Algonquin, interestingly, is using the editor as part of their promotion for the book. The reviewer’s copy of the book has a letter from the editor, Chuck Adams, saying “I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about a novel than I am by Jonathan Evison’s West of Here.” And Algonquin makes sure we know that Adams knows whereof he speaks, having edited well-received books before, most notably Water for Elephants and also including A Reliable Wife and An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. Between the heavy editor hype and the incredibly elaborate online presence that has already been created for the book, I wonder if this book’s bestsellerdom is already preordained? Is anyone going to wait for the reviews? Please do. Stop! Wait! Because while I’d love to say all this preamble is going to lead me to a rave, that ain’t necessarily so. . .

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Scoring the Page One Challenge

If you read my Page One analysis of West of Here yesterday (see below), in which I try to see how much one can determine about a book simply from reading its first page, perhaps you are wondering how I did, and whether the things I guessed at turned out to be correct. As a matter of fact, I did reasonably well. If you choose to read the book, and if you get to the end of the book (which eventually you will if you persist) you will discover (and note that I am being careful here not to be a plot spoiler) that:

*Krig is a major character (one of a cast of tens, but major nonetheless);

*Krig does drink a lot of beer;

*Someone does fall in the water; and

*a key theme of the book is man pitting himself nature (why, you ask? because it is there, of course!).

Score four for me!

Page One

Much has been made of the first lines of novels and their respective power or skill—-Call me Ishmael, Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, and so forth—-but what about first pages? What can one learn from the first page of a book? Enough to get a sense of the novel to come? Enough to draw you in? What elements does a good page one need? We know how important Page One is in a newspaper – does this apply to a novel?

To try an experiment, I read only the first page of the next novel in my Sneak Peek book discussion class, West of Here by Jonathan Evison (due to be published by Algonquin Books in February ’11). Here’s what I think I can guess at just from page one (Note: the opening section of the book is only two pages, but I’m being strict and have only read the first):

The chapter is called “Footprints” and the chapter head tells us it’s September 2006, so we’re in contemporary times. We’re in Port Bonita, which I know from the map that faces the opening page is in Washington State on the north side on the coast at the Strait of Juan de Fuca (it must be on the Olympic Peninsula).

The scene: a keynote address is being delivered in an outdoor setting and suddenly it starts to rain, and everyone runs for their cars, leaving litter and wilted candy behind. The band starts to pack up as soon as the rain begins in earnest, and particular note is made of the tuba player getting wet, which amused me, since my husband played tuba in his college band (not every reader will have this same sympathy for the tuba player, one supposes!)

On the stage, the keynote speaker, who is named Jared Thornburgh and about whom we know nothing, delivers the line: “There is a future, and it begins right now.” These inspiring words are delivered to no one, and after pronouncing them the speaker makes a run for it too. The only one left on stage is someone named Krig, who is wearing a Raiders jersey (which I guess makes sense given their proximity to Oakland. He’s not a fan of the nearby Seattle Seahawks, clearly, or maybe he’s not originally a local. Perhaps if I knew more about football allegiances I’d know even more about Krig due to his being a Raiders fan. Back when Jim Plunkett was their quarterback -70s? - I think they had a rep for being something of a tough team – maybe they still are kind of rough.) Krig is also described as having a hairy stomach, although the Raiders jersey, one presumes, covers this.

Not wanting to rush to his own car with all the others and get stuck in a traffic jam (like salmon swimming upstream), Krig meanders over to the rusted chain link fence that overlooks the dam and the gorge. He looks over the canyon “a hundred feet below,” which sounds dangerous to me – maybe someone will fall in during the course of the novel? He watches “the white water roar through the open jaws of the dam,” which definitely sounds threatening – nature as a force to be reckoned with. Someone somewhere in this book is going into the water!

Krig then looks at “a beleaguered run of all Chinook [a fish in the salmon family] spring from the shallows only to beat their silver heads against the concrete time and again.” So again, the image of salmon swimming upstream, continually banging their heads against an immoveable obstacle in a stubborn refusal to learn or to give up, or perhaps just unable to controvert their natural instincts. Obviously we are meant, or will be meant, to draw parallels to human behavior. This is reinforced by the book’s epigraph, which is a snatch of an old Potlatch song about “salmon panting as they fight the swift current.”(Potlatch defined by Wikepedia as “a festival ceremony practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast.” Ooh, maybe that’s where “potluck” comes from? But I digress…)

As Krig watches the Chinook bash their heads, it says: “As a kid he thought it was funny.” One therefore presumes Krig has had some experience in his life that taught him that suffering is not funny. Krig must be meant to be our central character. We don’t know much about him at this point, except for his sports allegiance and his hairy belly (perhaps a beer belly that goes with the football-watching?), and his unwillingness to follow a crowd, choosing instead to stand out in the rain.

I’ve now written an analysis of page one that is longer than page one itself. I’m such a good English major!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Happy New Year!

To sum up the end of 2010 in my “Sneak Peek at Next Year’s Bestsellers” class…

After Blindness of the Heart (discussed below), we read three more books. The second book we read was Nicole Krauss’s latest book, Great House. I am a huge fan of Krauss and think her writing is beautiful and profound. My favorite book of hers is The History of Love, and if you haven’t read it, please do. Everyone to whom I’ve recommended it has loved it. Yup, everyone.

Great House, like The History of Love, is a very intelligent and compelling book, and I recommend it as well. As one reviewer said, Krauss is “incapable of writing a bad sentence.” I can refer you for more info to the front page NYTBR review:

I also liked this Huffington Post review (it’s the one I quote above):

I have had the chance meet Krauss twice now. The first time was when we invited her to speak at my synagogue in suburban Philadelphia, and I was the one to pick her up at her hotel and bring her to the reading, giving us a nice long time to chat. We had a great conversation, in which I recall her talking about the challenges of being out on the road to promote a book, when, as an author, what she really wanted to do was be home and, well, write, of course. Our second meeting was a few months ago when she came back to Philly to give a talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia and we chatted a bit after the reading while she was signing books. She’s lovely and gracious, and always a very interesting and thoughtful speaker. Am I a fan, d’ya think?

You can listen to the podcast of her Free Library talk here:

And read more about it at my friend Susan Barr-Toman’s blog: