The last two stories in the collection--the superbly crafted "By and By" along with the emotionally resonant title story--both make this a fully satis...moreThe last two stories in the collection--the superbly crafted "By and By" along with the emotionally resonant title story--both make this a fully satisfying collection. If Bonnie Jo Campbell is known as a "dirty realist" then I would categorize Amy Bloom as a "dirty psychologist," unflinching in the way she plumbs our human frailties and darkly carnal desires. This book was a gift from a good friend, and the audio version powered my way across Iowa prairies. (less)
4.5 stars, with a minor subtraction for the anti-climactic ending.
(Spoiler alert) My favorite quote is the spontaneous deathbed obituary that Warm del...more4.5 stars, with a minor subtraction for the anti-climactic ending.
(Spoiler alert) My favorite quote is the spontaneous deathbed obituary that Warm delivers on behalf of Morris:
"Here lies Morris, a good man and friend. He enjoyed the finer points of civilized life but never shied from adventure or hard work. He died a free man, which is more than most people can say, if we are going to be honest about it. Most people are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven't the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change things for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood--weak blood, diluted--and their memories aren't a @!*# thing, you will see what I mean. Most people are imbeciles really, but Morris was not like this. He should have lived longer. He had more to give..."(less)
The werewolves in Benjamin Percy’s fantastic novel, Red Moon, are a force to be reckoned with, clawing their way out of ou...moreSummer Reading by Moonlight:
The werewolves in Benjamin Percy’s fantastic novel, Red Moon, are a force to be reckoned with, clawing their way out of our collective consciousness to suggest many allegorical connections: the heightened paranoia of the post 9/11 era, the camps during World War II, reservations on the plains—any Other we have feared and ghettoized in the name of public safety. As in any good horror novel, the scariest part is how human the werewolves—called “lycans” in the novel—become on the page, how real, how like us. As in any good literary novel—and this one is beautifully written, the prose transporting us from the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest to the Lycan Republic of Northern Europe—the writing also has things to say about the human condition. And herein lays the novel’s lasting, staying power: beyond the blood and guts this is a book that makes us think about who we are.
Survey the populace around you and on any given day, up to forty percent of the American populace is medicated in some form or another. We are not so different from the lycans in Red Moon, who use Lupex to control the highs and lows of their animal self. Midway into the novel, I was struck by this passage. One of my favorite characters in the book is a scientist named Neal Desai who is determined to find a cure for lycanthropy because his daughter was infected:
"His daughter, Sridavi, is a lost girl. That’s how he thinks of her—though really she is not so much a girl anymore at twenty-two. Her eyes swim with drugs. Her skin always has a sheen of sweat to it. Her bones press against her skin so harshly he fears they might cut through. The black smears beneath her eyes darken her otherwise yellowish complexion. Looking at her makes him feel scraped out by something sharp, a wound that no suture can help heal."
Neal’s desperation, his drive, is both palpable and emotionally resonant. He’s just one of many great characters readers encounter in this epic book. It’s no accident, I believe, that two of the principal characters we meet as young adults: Patrick, the “Miracle Boy” who survives an act of terrorism in the opening pages, and Claire, a lycan on the run from a mysterious figure, the Tall Man, who killed her parents because of their connection to the Resistance. By nature, teenagers feel their bodies surge with alien hormones and feelings. They have the physical capacity of adults—with all that means in terms of risk, danger, and the power to heal or harm—but their reasoning is still in development. Here’s Neal again writing about his daughter:
"…Instead, she claimed the haunting came from the daughter, a teenager, black haired and black fingernailed, dosed on medication for her depression. She was possessed by darkness that had turn possessed their home. “She is devouring you,” Madam Serena said.
"When Neal sits in the living room illuminated by the flickering light of the television, when he sees the vomit-splattered toilet bowl and hears the moans coming from his daughter’s room and faces the stiff, cold silence of his wife in bed, he, too, feels as though his daughter is slowly devouring him, devouring them all…"
This suspenseful read kept me up nights, devouring sleep, and the werewolves who lurked in these pages, their shambling forms half human and half beast, made me pause and gaze at the wilderness and darkness that exists in the world outside, and more importantly at the one inside, the landscape of the heart. (less)
This is a revised version of my original review, on further reflection:
The Night Circus is the best example of literary fantasy I've read in a long wh...moreThis is a revised version of my original review, on further reflection:
The Night Circus is the best example of literary fantasy I've read in a long while, a hybrid book that stirs elements of steampunk, romance, and legends into a bubbling cauldron to make something exciting and new. It’s like Water for Elephants, but with wizards instead of critters.
The word I thought of most often while reading it was “agon,” the classic Greek word for a contest between two forces which meet in a final climactic battle. Morgenstern’s clever take on this story structure asks what would happen if protagonist and antagonist fell in love? What if underneath, the forces were one and the same?
As I read through the reviews of friends on this site I find myself agreeing with some of the complaints. Yes, the scene sets are sumptuous, with descriptions of dinners and spectacle that sometimes become wearying. Erin Morgenstern excels in her use of imagery, all captured with a third person limited omniscience and told in present tense, which adds forward momentum to the plot. Yes, some of the minor characters like Poppet and Widget become more interesting than the main characters. Yes, the emotional landscape of the novel will leave some empty.
Professional reviewers also expressed mixed views. The New York Times review was less than flattering: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/boo... Stacey D’Erasmo concludes the novel is bloodless, writing that “[m]agic without passion is pretty much a trip to Pier One: lots of shrink-wrapped candles. One wishes Morgenstern had spent less time on the special effects and more on the hauntingly unanswerable question that runs, more or less ignored, through these pages: Can children love who were never loved, only used as intellectual machines? What kind of magic reverses that spell? It’s not as pretty a spectacle, but that’s a story that grips the heart.” Contrast her take with Ron Charles’ review in the WaPo, and you can see why readers will be divided about this book. While he complains about “too much going on” Charles also notes how “[t]he author mingles a sense of adolescent delight with a mature chilliness that reflects the circus’s stunning black-and-white decor, and the abiding potential for violence gives the plot a subtle charge.” His review positively glows.
Ultimately, after reflection, this is still a five star read in my mind, a book that does what good books should do: transport a reader into another world. It’s a book that works the oldest magic of all, enchanting the reader. The Night Circus is a richly layered story, using Shakespeare’s Tempest and elements of Potter-esque fantasy to tap into the current zeitgeist. How?
I liked this take from Christine Ziemba, who pointed out that “[a] quick answer lies in DNA. Human wiring brings along its appetites, and one of these happens to be a fascination with the unknown, with possibility beyond plausibility. It’s why we humans can fly now. It’s why our cities light up at night.”
In short, our dreams. It’s fitting that the final section includes this quote from Prospero in The Tempest: “We are such stuff/ as dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” This is why you should read this book.One of my favorite quotes from the novel captures for me what makes it such a charming, original and compelling read. I’ll conclude with it.
“Stories have changed my dear boy,” the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad. “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue. Most maidens are perfectly capable or rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case. There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead. Good and evil are a good deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story? Is not the wolf simply acting as a wolf should act? Though perhaps it is a singular wolf who goes to such lengths as to dress as a grandmother to toy with its prey.” (less)
The short of it: the best book of 2011, a stirring evocation of race, poverty, and Hurricane Katrina, Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones should have won...moreThe short of it: the best book of 2011, a stirring evocation of race, poverty, and Hurricane Katrina, Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones should have won the Pulitzer.
The long of it: This is a lean, lyrical and visceral work, but what I truly admired was how skillfully Ward weaves the vicious Greek myth of Medea into Esch's thoughts, her unrequited love for Manny, father of the child she carries. Mythos--the world of spirit and legend--is one of the four pillars that Aristotle said supports great drama, and it's one often neglected in contemporary literature. (The other three are ethos, pathos, and logos.) I won't say much more here, but just want to log in two of my favorite quotes from the novel:
"The sun will not show. It must be out there, over the furious hurricane beating itself against the coastline like China at the tin door of her shed when she wants to go out and Skeet will not let her. But here on the Pit, we are caught in the hour where the sun is hidden beyond the trees but hasn't escaped over the horizon, when it is coming and going, when light comes from everywhere and nowhere, when everything is gray.
"I lie awake and cannot see anything but that baby, the baby I have formed whole in my head, a black Athena, who reaches for me. Who gives me that name as if it is mine: Mama. I swallow salt. That voice, ringing in my head, is drowned out by a train letting out one long, high blast. And then it disappears, and there is only the sound of the wind like a snake big enough to swallow the world sliding against the mountains. And then the wind like a train again, and the house creaks. I curl into a ball.
"Did you hear that?"
It is Skeetah; I can barely see him. He is only a wash of greater darkness that moves in the dark opening of the hallway" (Ward 219).
"I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes" (Ward 255).
In those two quotes you see the weaving of myth, the motifs of snakes and mothers, puppies and babies, and all of it wrapped in this fierce and violent world, every bit alive.(less)
Do mystical words like “white-hot center” and “yearning” and “trance” make you squirm in your chair, or light up from within? From Where You Dream: Th...moreDo mystical words like “white-hot center” and “yearning” and “trance” make you squirm in your chair, or light up from within? From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction is a collection of lectures Robert Olen Butler delivered while at Florida State University. Janet Burroway, whose text on writing fiction is a cornerstone for workshops around the nation, edited the lectures from their original “extempore” delivery into what is a cohesive and fascinating look at how Robert Olen Butler believes writers should compose novels.
Let me say this from the beginning: From Where You Dream is unlike any other book out there. Yes, you’ll find advice on characters and plotting, but Butler’s emphasis is on process, and his primary concern is that most of us out there, including published novelists, are doing it wrong. Some might quibble with what occasionally comes across as an overly-prescriptive approach, but we grow as writers when we reflect on our writing, and that includes the way we do it. I am one of the least efficient writers on the planet, requiring many drafts and revisions before my work finds a unified form. I read books like Robert Olen Butler’s because I am ever searching for a better way, and I am happy to report there is so much that is good and helpful in this book. As a writer who also teaches fiction at the college level, I know I will be referring to it during the semester.
Robert Olen Butler begins by quoting Akira Kurosawa, who once said “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.” Here is the focus of his methods and his lectures: high art. “You must, to be in here, have the highest aspirations for yourselves as writers,” Butler says from the start, “—the desire to create works of fiction that will endure, that reflect and articulate the deepest truths about the human condition” (10). If you believe this, you are going to love this book. It’s true that some writers have simpler aims, to tell a good story, to create an imaginary realm where another reader might spend a few happy hours, and there’s nothing wrong with that. “There are two of you,” Butler opines at one point, “one who wants to write and one who doesn’t.” Wherever we fall on such a continuum—high art or pulp fiction—how we confront the blank page and the scary secret thoughts of our unconscious is one of the most important questions we face.
“Art comes from the place where you dream,” (13) Butler tells us, while advising us to live and write as “sensualists” and not “intellectuals.” Sensual. Dream. Ravenous. These are not terms we ordinarily find in texts on writing and yet they lie at the core of writing and art. The problem, according to Butler, “is that the artistic medium of fiction writers—language—is not innately sensual” (17). We have to find a way to seek out the unconscious mind, a place brimming with livid energy, and describe this world in sensual terms. “[F]or those two hours a day when you write you cannot flinch. You have to go down into the deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot place…you have to go down there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away” (18). Are you nervous yet? The way we find this place is through the trance, the “flow state.” Robert Olen Butler wants you to find the zone.
His chapter on “yearning” is a must read for all fiction writers. One of Butler’s primary concerns is that authors have set aside emotion, have forgotten that the “phenomenon of desire” should be at the center of every story. “We are the yearning creatures of this planet” Butler says (40). In a statement that I’ve often quoted in my writing classes, he notes that “desire is the drive force behind plot. The character yearns, the character does something in pursuit of that yearning, and some force or other will block the attempt to fulfill that yearning” (42). Sound simple? The trouble is all too often we forget what our characters want, muddy the water, create characters who are passive observers instead of active seekers. Butler doesn’t think you should start writing until it’s absolutely clear what your character yearns for.
In this respect, Robert Olen Butler reminds me of another famous writer. I like to quote Kurt Vonnegut to my students. “Make your character want something right away” Vonnegut says, “even if it’s something as simple as a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaning of life still have to drink water from time to time.” Vonnegut goes on to talk about a story one of this students wrote, about a nun who needs to remove a piece of dental floss from her teeth. According to him, “the story was about deeper things than that, but no one who read the story could do so without fishing around in their mouths.”
The main advice in From Where You Dream is how to get access to that molten part of our unconscious minds. Robert Olen Butler wants you to consider “dreamstorming, “ a process he describes like this: “You’re going to sit or recline in your writing space in your trance and you’re going to free-float, free-associate, sit with your character, watch your character move around in the potential world of this novel” (87). Butler wants you to do this day after day, before you ever start writing. What emerges out of the dreamstorm should be a scattering of images, sensual moments, between six or ten words that indicate what is going to happen in this scene. He advises doing this until you have filled two hundred or so three-by-five cards with potential scenes. The goal of this dreamstorming is what “psychologists call functional fixedness.” By seeking out a trance state day after day, your mind naturally responds, opening up doorways into the unconscious. Once you have all the cards in place you organize them, searching for your opening scene. The structure he says, grows “organically” from the process. “When you are driven by the desire for the organic wholeness of the object, and by the need to recompose the elements that are already in the work, and by the dynamics of your character’s desire, structure will inevitably come from that” (94).
Do you buy into the process? In a way it sounds like the advice I give my students for putting together a research essay, but with a strong mystical dose of meditation to tap into the right side of the brain. I thought of Ray Bradbury (see my post from a few years ago) and his brainstorming lists from The Zen of Writing. The primary thing I took from Where You Dream was the highly important emphasis of finding a way to enter that waking dream state, the trance mind, where all good writing originates. I thought more deeply about my characters and what they want and how importance it is to never lose sight of this.
I have an hour a day to write during the school year. It’s all I can spare once the papers start rolling in. Even if I don’t go all the way into using Butler’s three-by-five cards, I know from reading this book that I need to spend more time clearing my conscious mind, meditating, and the result will deepen my fiction.
There’s much more From Where You Dream than I have space for here. The chapter on “The Cinema of the Mind” makes reading it worth your time and money alone. For the working writer there’s an abundance of good advice about the process of shaping a novel. For the teacher of writing, there are great examples (and a neat activity using anecdotes that I’d like to try) about the writing workshop, including an appendix with an older short story of Robert Olen Butler’s, “Open Arms,” and student examples that incorporate analysis.
If you love writing, if you want to learn and grow, buy this book. It’s one of the best books on writing that I’ve read in a long time.
The voice of 14 year old Mattie will remain with me for a long time; she's the most unforgettable first person narrator since Scout in To Kill a Mocki...moreThe voice of 14 year old Mattie will remain with me for a long time; she's the most unforgettable first person narrator since Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. The climax of the novel is simply amazing, but it is Mattie's voice, compelling and believable, that makes this work a modern classic.(less)
Five stars might be too generous, since the stories weren't all successful, but in all the years I've been reading this series, this is the best ever....moreFive stars might be too generous, since the stories weren't all successful, but in all the years I've been reading this series, this is the best ever. I'm not sure if it was Russo's selections or just a particularly rich bounty of good short stories, but many of these took my breath away. Stories that continue to resonate now that I'm done: Steve Almond's "Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched"--extra credit for working a poker hand into the story's final turn! Jennifer Egan's "Safari"--inspired me to read her novel The Keep, also a great book! Lauren Groff's "Delicate, Edible Birds" Wayne Harrison's "Least Resistance" James Lasdun's "The Hollow" Rebecca Makkai's "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship" Kevin Moffet's "Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events"--best story I've read in awhile about fathers and sons Tea Obreht's "The Laugh"--absolutely spine chilling! Karen Russell's "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach"
There are others I could name, but you get the idea. If you love contemporary literary fiction, get this year's collection!(less)
I expected to love Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, since it features two of my favorites subjects, jogging and the craf...moreI expected to love Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, since it features two of my favorites subjects, jogging and the craft of writing. Throw in a dash of memoir and you have what should have been an inspirational read. I hoped the book would jumpstart my exercise program and fuel my progress through the final revision of my second novel.
To those ends, the book disappoints, but I was still glad I read it. Maybe I was expecting too much from one of the world’s premier authors, but this thin memoir doesn’t measure up to classics like Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. If you don’t already love running or writing, Murakami’s memoir won’t do much for you.
Why? Let’s get the bad out of the way first and then discuss what the book does right. Murakami’s descriptions of running feature some of the most flaccid prose I’ve encountered this year. He even resorts to cliché, complaining of it “raining cats and dogs” during a training session for the New York Marathon. Consider this passage about his run between Marathon, Greece and Athens:
The road within the Athen’s city limit is very hard to run on. It’s about three miles from the stadium to the highway and entrance and there are lots of stoplights, which messes up my pace. There are also a lot of places where construction and double-parked cars block the road, and I have to step out in the middle of the street. What with cars zooming around early in the morning, running here can be dangerous. (Murakami 61)
Note the painful passive tense, the lack of sensory imagery. Much of this book contains exactly these kinds of snooze-inducing descriptions of running. The memoir portions from a man characterized as a “guardedly private writer” probably won’t surprise longtime Murakami fans. We learn he once owned a jazz club and was a former smoker. He collects LP’s and has a special fondness for classic rock and roll. There’s little insight into the man’s psychology, the unique forces and life events that shape a great writer. And maybe this is a good thing. Murakami comes across as slightly dull in his memoir. There’s no messed up childhood, no triumph over alcohol or drugs. This is a record of one writer getting it done. He leaves the magic for his stories.
There are surprises in this book. Murakami discusses artists who hit their peak as they approached middle age, like Dostoevesky, who produced his greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, shortly before his death. The book becomes most dynamic and hits some soaring notes when it makes the connections between running and writing. Noting that both are a matter of talent, Murakami, who doesn’t consider himself talented at either, believes that:
I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out of a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have dredge out another deep hole. (Murkami 43)
Many of us have seen runners crippled by aching joints and bad knees in old age. What Murakami points out in this book is that writing offers similar highs and joys, but also takes a toll that is both psychic and physical. Art always involves sacrifice. In another passage, he makes his thoughts on discipline and concentration abundantly clear:
Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people only see the surface of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process--sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion. (Murakami 79-80).
When my teaching schedule or home life gets hectic, the first thing I let go is the exercise. The hour a five mile jog—or plod, in my case—is an easy cut. As the papers pile up, or the children get sick, I cling to what little time I have. I keep writing, trying to carve out a little space in the day. What I gained from this book most clearly is a realization of how important my physical health is to the writing that I need to do. If I want to write, I need to run, or like Charles Dickens, taking up an evening walk which will allow me to think about the stories I’m working on. I’ll leave with Murakami’s thoughts on these things:
In any event, I’m happy I haven’t stopped running all these years. The reason is, I like the novels I’ve written. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of novel I’ll produce next. Since I’m a writer with limits—an imperfect person living an imperfect, limited life—the fact that I can still feel this way is a real accomplishment. Calling it a miracle, might be an exaggeration, but I really do feel this way. And if running every day helps me accomplish this, then I’m very grateful to running. (Murakami 82)
For the Murakami fan in your family this book is well worth a purchase. For the runner with literary ambitions, it offers some heady delights. It’s by no means a perfect little book, but this is a book on writing worth your time and effort. (less)