Friday, January 30, 2015

Two Writers Evocative of the 1970s, Now Passed On

Readers of a certain age will remember two authors who were hugely successful, especially in the 1970s, although not considered “literary” writers. These two very different authors, Rod McKuen and Colleen McCullough, both died yesterday, McKuen at age 81 and McCullough at 77. McCullough, an Australian, was best known for her sentimental novel “The Thorn Birds,” about a priest torn between his vocation and his love of a woman, which was published in 1977 and sold 30 million copies, and then went on to be an extremely popular mini-series. She also wrote 24 other novels. (I learned something surprising and fascinating from her obituary: in her "other life," she had a career as a researcher in neuroscience both at Yale and in Sydney.) McKuen was a prolific poet and songwriter from the Bay Area (Oakland), who was associated with the Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and who developed his own popular New Age-influenced style. His poetry and songs were very accessible and could be found on the radio and in movies, as well as in poetry collections that were snapped up by readers, mostly young and soaked in 60s culture. I remember that in college I thought his poetry collection title “Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows” sounded very sad and romantic, although I didn’t actually read the poetry; it was just in the air around us. When I moved to San Francisco and saw the actual Stanyan Street, which runs next to the university where I teach, I have to admit that I had a starstruck moment of feeling connected to this popular writer and his work (very quickly followed by an embarrassed laugh at myself). Although I didn’t actually read or particularly admire either McKuen or McCullough’s work, their work gave much pleasure to many readers. They were each immensely popular, and each a part of the zeitgeist for many years, so reading their obituaries this morning evoked a shiver of memories of that golden yet complicated time.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"Pioneer Girl," by Bich Minh Nguyen

Last year I heard my University of San Francisco colleague (she is faculty member in the Masters in Writing Program), Bich Minh Nguyen, read from her work, and was very impressed. Now I have read her novel "Pioneer Girl" (Viking, 2014) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I love a literary mystery. I usually thoroughly enjoy stories about academics. I am drawn to stories of growing up, especially those of young women. And I am interested in stories of those who grow up in multicultural settings, such as in the homes of immigrant parents. “Pioneer Girl” brings these four strands, and of course more (I don’t want to be reductive) together, so for me the novel was compelling on several levels. The main character, Lee Lien, grows up in her Vietnamese-American family in the Midwest. Her father has died fairly young, and her mother is closemouthed about various aspects of his past as well as her own past and present. She is also very critical of Lee Lien and her brother Sam, although Sam gets a pass to some extent because he is a son. Lee has earned her PhD in literature, but hasn’t been able to find an academic job. Her mother thinks a PhD in literature is useless, and wants Lee to stay at home and work in the family restaurant. The unique aspect of the main character's story is the unexpected (possible) intertwining of some of her own family history and that of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother Rose, this possibility initially based on a mysterious piece of jewelry. Lee becomes fascinated with the possible connections, and uses her literary and research skills to pursue the mystery in various libraries and historical sites related to the Wilders. Both the family story and the literary mystery (especially about an author whose work I know well and love, and read to my daughter when she was little) are intriguing, and combined they are more so. There is also romance, failed romance, possible romance, friendship, insights into academe, and other aspects of the novel to keep readers eagerly reading. The writing is descriptive and evocative. For example, the description of the restaurant, its tastes, smells, and sounds, is vivid. I highly recommend “Pioneer Girl.”

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"In Certain Circles," by Elizabeth Harrower

I was in Sydney, Australia, a few months ago for a few days, and perhaps partly because of that visit, when I read about Elizabeth Harrower’s novel “In Certain Circles” (Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 2014), I felt drawn to read it. Harrower is well known in Australia for her novels published in the 1950s and 60s, but she withdrew this particular book just before publication in 1971, and it is only now being published. I haven’t read anything about why she withdrew it, but we can guess that perhaps it was so personal that she wasn’t willing to expose it to the public. Maybe she now feels that enough time has gone past, and maybe some of the models for the main characters are no longer alive? Note that this is pure speculation on my part. In any case, it is certainly a mystery. The novel is beautifully constructed and written. It focuses on four main characters, Zoe and her brother Russell, and Stephen and his sister Anna. Starting when they are in their teens and twenties, these four characters from very unlike backgrounds connect and relate to each other in shifting ways over the years. There is deep friendship, there is romance and marriage, there are secrets, there are inescapable influences from the past, and there is betrayal. Each of the four characters has her or his positive and negative characteristics. Harrower helps us understand all four, and sympathize with if not like each one. One of the themes is how deeply we are all influenced by our pasts, especially our family lives. Another is how even great love and great friendship can shift, change, and even disappear. There is also a nuanced portrayal of how social class differences matter, even when some characters like to think that they don't. For me, in the end, the Sydney setting was attractive and an added bonus, but it was the story and the characters that gripped me. I am glad that Harrower finally, these 43 years later, decided to allow “In Certain Circles” to be published. (An added note: Today is the five-year anniversary of the day I started this blog.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Rainey Royal," by Dylan Landis

“Rainey Royal” (Soho, 2014) isn’t (only) “about” the creepy attentions that some men, in this case some musicians, pay to girls and teenagers, but it is certainly a major theme. The author, Dylan Landis, doesn’t spell out -- past a certain borderline point -- the extent of the “grooming” activities that young teenager Rainey Royal's father Howard’s fellow musician/best friend/housemate Gordy performs, but it clearly verges very closely on if not consists outright of child sexual molestation. Rainey, 14 years old at the beginning of the novel, lives in the chaotic household where her father, a revered jazz musician, has young musicians and others constantly visiting, playing music with, living with, and sleeping with him. Throughout the book, Rainey is constantly vigilant, finding her own ways to avoid her father and Gordy and their acolytes/victims, as well as the general craziness of their house and lifestyle. These men's attitudes and behaviors are cloaked in the rhetoric of hipness, freedom, and artistic nonconformity to what are regarded as society’s ridiculous rules that don’t apply to artists. The author delineates this self-serving way of thinking and this terrible behavior in a devastating way. But as I said, this is not the only theme of the novel; the focus is on the strong, creative, resilient young woman that Rainey is, despite everything. Her mother left her father, and she very rarely hears from her. Her father is completely unreliable in terms of protecting her. So Rainey finds a sort of alternative family among her friends, especially Tina and Leah. She is rebellious and quick to see hypocrisy and society's facades. For example, she sometimes gets in trouble at school because of her defiant attitude and unwillingness to play the acceptance game that school often requires. Her friends have their own problems, but the girls support each other. Nothing is simple, though, as Tina both supports Rainey and in a way betrays her; somehow the author convinces us that these two behaviors realistically co-exist. The author also convinces us that Rainey, despite her difficult situation, finds her own way through her friendships, her refusal to put up with certain things, and her creativity; she has an artistic gift for making tapestries that honor or memorialize people, and through a bit of entrepreneurship, gets paid for these. The book consists of 14 stories or rather episodes, and through the course of the novel, Rainey grows up to the age of about 25, gradually taking control of her own life against all the odds, and establishing herself in the world and in her own life. And gradually she is able to be a bit more vulnerable and less combative, even showing a soft spot or two. Rainey is a complex, shining character, in an edgy story, and the novel is riveting.

Monday, January 19, 2015

"Faulty Predictions: Stories," by Karin Lin-Greenberg

Karin Lin-Greenberg's “Faulty Predictions: Stories” (University of Georgia Press, 2014), a winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, was recommended to me by a friend who is a published author of short stories herself. I am glad she did recommend it, as I may not have known about it otherwise. The stories are original, unpredictable, quirky, and revealing. The characters vary widely, ranging from high school students to a talk show host to two Chinese-American grandmothers to a bus driver to a college professor to a medical student, for just some examples. Sometimes there is alcohol involved, or shoplifting, or other types of misbehavior. The characters are closely observed, and in almost every story there is a turning point, a surprise. And almost every character, whether “likeable” or not, causes readers to feel at least a moment of connection or compassion, often when we least expect to feel it. This is the author’s first book, a rewarding collection of stories, and I look forward to reading more of her fiction.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Turn-Taking in Email Correspondence

Recently I was thinking about “turn-taking” in email correspondence among colleagues or friends. (I am not talking about business correspondence here). After all, email is a kind of reading and writing that most of us do daily. Linguists talk about “turn-taking” in spoken conversation, which involves the ways in which people decide (mostly unconsciously) when it is time for one person to stop talking and another to start. Much has been written about how and when this is done, how it is different in different cultures, how it differs by gender, what happens when someone speaks when it isn’t his or her turn, and much more. Here I write about my own feelings as I decide if, when and how quickly to reply to an email. Obviously if it is a mass mail, or spam, I don’t answer, but otherwise I generally do. If it is a simple query, I try to answer immediately. If it will require my checking something or finding some information, or further thought, I make a note to myself and answer within a day or two if possible. If it is a personal email from a colleague or friend just keeping in touch or sharing news, I also usually answer within a day or two or three. A question arises, though, when a friend and I have the kind of relationship and correspondence that takes place either sporadically, or at widely spaced intervals (maybe every month or two or more, for example). If I answer immediately, am I violating our unspoken agreement regarding frequency? Usually, though, there is an email, an answer, and THEN a break of a month or more. But sometimes the answerer asks a new question, or provides news that seems to require a response, and then I want to answer the question or to comment on the news (congratulations, condolences, etc.), so I add a third “turn.” Is the other person expected to reply to that third email? Or, if I am the one who receives the third turn, should I reply? Sometimes the solution is that the last email becomes very brief, signalling the end of the current round of correspondence (e.g., “Thanks, I appreciate that!” or “That’s great to hear!”). The crux of the matter is that at some point, someone has to stop the exchange, whether for a few days or weeks or months, and the other person has to feel OK about it. No one wants to feel they are pushing the other person into more frequent correspondence than they want or than is appropriate at their level of acquaintance or friendship, but they also don’t want the other person to feel one has suddenly gone silent on them, or to think one is being rude or neglectful. Fortunately all this is usually intuited unconsciously, and doesn’t take as much thought as I am giving it here; we can usually “feel” when the timing is right. But there are occasional hiccups or mismatches. Who hasn’t ever wondered “Should I reply to this email right away, or wait a while?” or felt “I wonder why XXX didn’t answer my last email”? (I don’t think I am the only one!)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Three Wonderful Finalists for the Story Prize

I was very pleased to learn today that the three finalists for this year's Story Prize, a prestigious prize for short story collections (former winners include Edwidge Danticat and Tobias Wolff), were all books I had read and posted about here this past year. Often when I see lists of finalists for literary prizes, or “best books of the year” lists, I am struck by how many books on the list I haven’t read, often because they just didn’t appeal to me. So to discover this prize finalist list with its three wonderful choices is a real pleasure and feels like a sort of validation of my preferences in short stories. The three collections (with the dates I wrote about them here in parentheses) are: “Bark,” by Lorrie Moore (3/21/14); “The Other Language,” by Francesca Marciano (7/26/14); and “Thunderstruck,” by Elizabeth McCracken (10/10/14). I recommend them all to you. Which would I choose if I were the judges? It is hard to say, but if pressed I would perhaps choose “The Other Language” for its sheer originality. The prize will be awarded on March 4th in New York.

Friday, January 9, 2015

"The Land of Steady Habits," by Ted Thompson

I finished reading Ted Thompson’s novel “The Land of Steady Habits” (Little Brown, 2014) a few days ago, and since then I have been pondering what I think about it, and how to write about it. What I keep coming back to is gender issues. The novel is not “about” gender, but to me the main character deals with an intriguing mixture of gender concerns. Anders Hill, in his early sixties, suddenly decides that after working hard all his life, he is going to retire from work, leave his wife of forty years, buy a condo, and enjoy his freedom. The classic male midlife crisis, right? But somehow his “freedom” is not as satisfying as he thought it would be. And there are complications – financial, familial, social, and emotional. He still has to deal with some typically “male” responsibilities, and at the same time he worries about more stereotypically “female” emotional and relational issues, such as missing his wife and being jealous when she starts dating an old friend. Of course it is a given that these concerns are not so easily categorized by gender (thank goodness!), and I don’t want to deal in stereotypes, but in fact in literature the focus is often more on one or the other of these. The setting in suburbia, and the balancing of work and home concerns, echo Rabbit and even – to an extent – Babbitt. Anders is also an example of a fairly common type of character in contemporary American fiction, especially in novels by male writers: a crotchety, complaining middle-aged or late middle-aged man whose genuine emotions and questions are made slightly foolish by his self-preoccupied, whiny persona. The story is engaging, tracing the arc of Anders’ and his wife Helen’s lives from the time they met in college to the present. Their college friend Donny is a major character too, as are Anders’ and Helen’s two sons. There are problems, there is unhappiness, but there is also much connection. Still, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, what I find perhaps most interesting about this novel is the questions of gender that it indirectly raises.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"Lessons of Love in Afghanistan," by Suzanne Griffin

My friend and former colleague, Suzanne Griffin, has written a wonderful, inspiring book about her work in Afghanistan. “Lessons of Love in Afghanistan: A Lifelong Commitment to the Afghan People” (Bennett and Hastings Publishing, 2014) describes her decades of connection to Afghanistan. Originally this came about through her husband Michael’s work in the Peace Corps; when they got married, she joined him when he went back there. She grew to love the people, the culture, and the language. When she and Michael went back to the United States, Suzanne became an educator. The couple always wanted and intended to go back to Afghanistan and help in any ways they could. Years later, when her husband died too young, Suzanne, by then a college dean, took a leave of absence to help with setting up programs and schools, especially for girls and women, in Afghanistan. She ended up spending more than a decade, with brief breaks, in Afghanistan, and was involved not only in education but also related matters such as women’s health. All of this was not at all easy; it was dangerous, strenuous, and frustrating at times, but Suzanne loved the work and persisted. In fact, she is still involved with programs in Afghanistan. This book is a combination of a memoir and a description of the situation in Afghanistan. The author’s devotion to the country and the work is clear, yet she writes in a way that is modest and matter-of-fact. This reader shuddered at some of the dangers Suzanne faced. But most of all, I admire so much what she has done. The serious nature of the book, although important, is leavened in a welcome way by the author's sharing her feelings, and weaving in stories about her family and friends and people she meets through the years. The book is very readable and engaging, and I learned much from it as well.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Does the Space Make a Difference?

I have always believed that punctuation makes a difference and has significance. But a difference I hadn’t thought about until fairly recently was whether to leave one or two spaces after a period. I grew up learning, in my high school typing class and elsewhere, to leave two spaces, and I never questioned that. It became absolutely automatic for me. But more and more I have realized that now the standard is one space. The point that jolted me was in a recent article about job applications that stated that for older applicants, leaving two spaces after periods can be a signal of their age, and by proxy, a sort of sign of being outdated or behind the times. I am fortunate not to have to apply for jobs, but I still don’t want to be thought of as behind the times! So I have been trying to remember this, and now I often go back through something I have written to delete one of the two spaces. I actually had to do it for this very blogpost. Such a small matter to be fraught with such possible significance!
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