Friday, February 25, 2011

All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang

What is real poetry, the kind that speaks to the soul, and what are tinny slick word constructions a man can use to build an important career?

As soon as I read the first paragraph and realized this novel was about a writing workshop, I was like, Oh Jeez. Writers writing about writers? But then I was totally sucked into the very compelling story. It was hard to put the book down. Later my thought was, well, it really is ballsy for the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop to write a novel about a writer’s workshop. What are the chances of it succeeding? And yet it does.

Roman, the central consciousness, is a poet. Or is he? In order to write real poetry, in order to love, you must possess a soul. The characters, young poetry students in a workshop led by the terrifying Miranda, debate issues like these all day long. You can teach technique, but you can’t give someone a soul.  There are many indications that Roman lacks one. Brains, yes, beauty, yes. A soul – no – he’s too afraid to go there. He’s too afraid to make himself vulnerable. His core wound – the abandonment by his mother when he was a child. Miranda advises him to write about this – but can he make real poetry out of it?

The writing is very beautiful. The passage of time is delicately, skillfully done, as this short novel spans thirty years. Everything unnecessary is omitted.

Part of the plot derives from the Jorie Graham Foetry scandal, which stunk of a shabby con and damaged everyone involved’s reputation. However, Miranda is presented as a merciless Sphinx and the problem is if you have a merciless Sphinx as a major character and the emotional reaction of the Sphinx is a key plot point, there's a leap of faith that needs to be taken.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Don't I Know You by Karen Shepard

The murder of a young woman is a devastation that gnaws at three lives

Unfortunately, I really had to grit my teeth to get through this. Murder stories are not my preference. I’m squeamish. Secondly, in some novels (such as this one) the brutal murder seems only to inject the surrounding characters with a deep passivity. Also, there were a couple of authorial choices that confused me. The novel is set up in three sections – each with a unique point of view. The first point of view is that of the young woman’s son. But I couldn’t figure out how old he was – was he five? Was he fifteen? Was he developmentally disabled? Was he a genius? And then at the end – the twist – the murderer revealed! Only it happens there are two characters with similar names. I just didn’t feel like flipping back to figure out who it was.

A number of things were skillfully done – myriad characters, all finely detailed, all longing for something, always disappointed by those closest to them. The scenes were all about showing, not telling. All about the sidelong glance. Watercolors, not fingerpaints.

In general, the prose was too buttoned down for my taste. The male POV, the boy, was too washed out. He didn’t feel like a man to me. This story desperately needed a detective, I think, not another shell shocked narrator.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea

A group of innocents go on a dangerous journey to return their home to the way it was

This novel has an appealing Wizard of Oz/fairy tale flavor. The essence of the story is sweetness. Three girlfriends and a gay guy set across an unknown border on a noble mission. At first the reader is expecting a light hearted romp, but then the friends witness disturbing images of poverty, violence and racism. At the same time, the broad cartoon like comic characters the friends encounter break the tension and assist in sticky plot situations. The Spanglish is hilarious.

The main character is Nayeli, a beautiful girl who works in a taco shop. There are no men in her little village – they have all gone North. She conceives a plan to bring them back – specifically her father. The na├»ve ones set off in celebration, but soon the sights and the dangers of their journal are all too real. The beauty and cruelty of Mexico. They grow frightened, they learn, they get courage and press on.

I’m a sucker for a quest story, though there are some flaws, including insufficient characterization, especially for the two sidekick girls. Also, the main plot impetus – that the village is overrun by bandidos, is so sketchy as to have no emotional resonance. And it’s not needed. Just have Nayeli want to bring back her dad.

In many ways it was Dickensian -- the comic sidekicks who have an energy of their own, and almost take over the novel. The unsparing description of dehumanizing poverty.   Best of all, it made you think.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth

An obsessive screwup follows people around even to Nicaragua

I enjoyed this. The sentences and the situations were very funny, absurd even, and yet at the same time incredibly moving. These characters are desperate, though the reader knows (do the characters?) that happiness cannot be achieved. Part of the book is also a very cutting depiction of marriage, as the husband and wife elaborately slash each other to pieces over trivia like leaving a light on. The male POV feels realistic to me here – pissed off and stubborn. I have read some of Unferth’s short stories, and while I thought they were funny, I also thought they had a bit of pretention about them. But not here. People follow each other all over the place, ultimately following them to death. The gaps between the beautiful sentences are terrifying.

Why do people do the things they do? Maybe it all boils down to a brain tumor. Ultimately, the world is bleak. But beautiful.