In every creative writing program, an insanely big deal is made of Voice—discovering a Voice, having a Voice, having a unique Voice, maintaining yourIn every creative writing program, an insanely big deal is made of Voice—discovering a Voice, having a Voice, having a unique Voice, maintaining your unique Voice, I can’t follow the story but oh that Voice, yes it’s misogyny but what a Voice!
The concept of voice is another in the long list of writing program sillynesses (others: science fiction isn’t legitimate writing, it’s not O.K. to admit influence from well-known writers, and the word poignant means something). But there is no doubt that having a singular voice in one’s writing can help talk one’s way from tattered manuscript to cloth-bound, ISBN’ed, publicity-toured book. It’s one of the rare places where writing program, lit mag, and acquisitions editor office overlap: great voice = great writing (= great $).
Writer and This American Life storyteller Sarah Vowell—author previously of The Partly Cloudly Patriot and other books—has such an amusing spoken voice—as any six-year-old or Daily Show watcher can now tell you—that Pixar had her voice the character of Violet in The Incredibles. Coming out of a kid’s mouth, her voice is squashed, the breaks and rasps always audible in her NPR and book-tour readings seemingly all that’s left. Coming out of the real-life, adult, on-the-page Sarah Vowell, though, her voice is the spillings out of anyone awkwardly and energetically overcompensating.
And, boom, there’s her charm, and the charm of Assassination Vacation, Vowell’s latest book-length road trip along another unnoticed plane of American history, in this case the tourism of American presidential assassinations.
Lest you wonder how this could be a worthy subject, Vowell offers that there’s a parallel to relical pilgrimage, which speaks to the supposed fervor or irrationality of those who would abandon all security to travel a thousand miles to inhale the healing dust of a saint. But Vowell’s obsession (and voice) affixes itself instead to the caretakers of American reliquaries—the tour guide of the house where John Wilkes Booth stopped to resupply after shooting President Lincoln; the ranger in charge of Dry Tortugas National Park, where Booth’s doctor/convicted accomplice was imprisoned; the manager of the freakish Oneida Community mansion in upstate New York, where lived the serially unpopular Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau. If medieval pilgrimage speaks more about the pilgrim than the saint, then it undercuts the fun of Assassination Vacation that only conscripted schoolchildren, the elderly, and Sarah Vowell actually visit these places. She has no pilgrims to talk to. Her writing about the caretakers—people largely there by dint of circumstance, people who grew into their interest rather than stalked it—feels like an editorial save more than the heart of a good story.
Aye, but the Voice. Vowell’s style really is the engine of her books, and her “shenanigans,” as she and This American Life boss Ira Glass call her tangents, have coalesced into a discreet skill to pack researched and lived events into the smallest page-space possible. Her seeming desperation to push her imagination in every historical-narrative direction leads to well-earned, well-appreciated, and well-Voiced wonderings like the following:
My head tells me autopsies after murders are routine, that before Ford’s Theater turned into a shrine it was a crime scene, that of course the evidence of the crime was analyzed, then archived, that Abraham Lincoln was not just a martyr or a myth but a case file, what the pros nowadays call a “vic.” So the evidence here calls up the corporeal presence of Lincoln (pieces of his head—gross—and Booth, who bought this very bullet, put said bullet in his pistol, then into Lincoln, which struck the skull, thereby chipping off these little pieces of it, mashing the bullet itself. These well-labeled, well-lit artifacts also suggest the existence of: the autopsy surgeon, the file clerk who catalogued and stowed them, the curator who decided to put them on display, the carpenter who built the display case, etc.
It’s always a fine thing when writers get readers to sneak their minds into freshly hewn nooks. The large-context problem though with Assassination Vacation is that Vowell provides no hierarchy. Despite the aggressive leveling of story structures in the last decades, readers still need a way to know what things are more important than other things. Vowell’s voice doesn’t allow this, because she’s equally excited about everything. It’s an intoxicating enthusiasm, to be sure, but only for a time. She pulls the reader along with her to obscure sites, to view obscure plaques, to reflect on obscure statues and houses and legends, but in the end she violates another writing program rule, one that’s actually true—and she admits as much—that stories don’t work if their only force for cohesion is coincidence. Coincidence, after all, is only in the eye of the beholder.
Thus, there are some buried gems of American history in Assassination Vacation but without an organizing force beyond Vowell’s own Voice, beyond her own obsessions and will, you might find yourself asking to be let off the tour....more
We have a family friend who smuggled cameras into Soviet Russia. He was a mathemetician or engineer at MIT at the time, something like that, and he anWe have a family friend who smuggled cameras into Soviet Russia. He was a mathemetician or engineer at MIT at the time, something like that, and he and his teachers heard their colleagues in Russia were being blacklisted under Brezhnev, and that being blacklisted meant not working, and that not working meant being on the street, and that being on the street meant being shipped to a labor camp. So under who knows what excuse, these MIT nerds flew to Moscow—multiple times—with American-made cameras around their necks, gave them to Soviet nerds for them to sell on the black market—each camera could be worth a year’s pay—and thus saved their lives.
This family friend is fairly ordinary. He’s quite smart and has travelled a great deal, but his wikipedia entry wouldn’t be any longer than yours or mine. And that’s what makes the bit above, and the two books under review here, stay with me: good stories always seems to come out of a combination of ordinary characters and huge backgrounds.
David Bezmozgis is a Torontan but from Riga, Latvia. That is, the Soviet Union. He has published the story collection Natasha, a debut doubtless to earn comparisons—well here, I’m doing it—to Aleksandar Hemon, another English-as-a-second-language stunner adopted by New Yorker types as both a curiosity and, like, lover almost. But Bezmozgis, like Hemon, is a pretty ordinary guy by any measure other than circumstance. Same goes for the Bermans, the characters at the center of Natasha. They are Russian Jews. The father is a masseur, the mother a housewife. The son, who narrates each story through his advancing ages, loves a pet in one story, an athlete in another, a teenaged girl in a third. But against the background of flight from a killing-empire, against his parents’ and Jews’ memory and hope, and against acclimation to Canadian/American opportunities and demands, the characters’ stories project much grander shapes.
Bezmozgis tells these sorts of stories successfully by exploiting tricks in structure—positioning the small, personal elements next to the transcendent ones. The story “An Animal to the Memory” works well in this respect. Bezmozgis writes it such that a character’s very personalized rage is confronted, story-wise, by his principal’s teaching on the Holocaust. Watching Bezmozgis fit the elements of person and history together and capping them with a last, cathartic line (”Now, Berman, he said, now maybe you understand what it means to be a Jew.”) is the primary thrill of the collection Natasha.
Another immigrant tale is A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, the new debut novel by erstwhile sociologist Marina Lewycka. Different in setting, style, and tone from Natasha, Lewycka’s novel nevertheless ploughs similar turf, namely, how do the ordinary products of extraordinary circumstance deal with ordinary problems? Lewycka’s characters are, like her, of a Ukrainian family living in England and dealing with the challenge of elder care. Nadia is a professor, her sister Vera a hard-edged divorcee, and their widower father a mess. He has fallen in love with a bosomy youngish Ukrainian mother, whom he imports and supports to his own financial and near-physical ruin. Nadia and Vera see the scam but can hardly do anything about it without destroying their father.
Again, a seemingly inward-facing crisis has its sources in big-h History. Their father loves this woman who ruins him almost simply because he can let her, because he can finally be wasteful and self-centered after a life of scrimping and fear and misdirection in Soviet Ukraine. It’s a poor decision on his part, but we understand it, even if his children don’t:
We arrive well before one o’clock, hoping to catch her, but she has already gone out. The house looks neglected, dispirited. When my mother was here there were always fresh flowers, a clean tablecloth, the smell of good cooking. Now there are no flowers, but used cups, piles of papers, books, things that have not been put away.
Nadia chalks up the mess of her father’s life to depression, but only initially. As she learns more, his sins of necessity, of survival against a regime that hardly wanted him, come to the fore, and the story becomes more compelling, if also sadder. Lewycka’s writing, on its own, isn’t terribly engaging, and her insistence on forcing the story-telling entirely into dialogue is a certain weakness, but her ability to place the structure of the common, important issue of caring for one’s parents within the structure of the immigration tale will win her many doting readers.
Our family friend is still ordinary, by the way. He went into business briefly with my stepfather and has started or invested in various companies with varying success. I rather hope the same for Bezmozgis and Lewycka. Unless you’re Joseph Roth or Graham Greene, books of this type are notoriously difficult to follow up, at least not without degrading the endeavour into a pulpy little-man-vs.-the-world formula. I wonder even if we’ll see another book of fiction from the sociologist Lewycka. But Tractors and Bezmozgis’ Natasha, like those cameras, will be gifts that last us long enough....more
Should Steve Almond bother you? Should you find it condescending that he’s got a reading comprehension test on his website? Should you get the icks frShould Steve Almond bother you? Should you find it condescending that he’s got a reading comprehension test on his website? Should you get the icks from Almond’s writing about teaching the sexy, sexed-up female students in a writing workshop very much resembling his own at Boston College? Should you down some ipecac because his most assured writing in The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories is in a story called “The Idea of Michael Jackson’s Dick”?
Ugh, yes. Steve, you have freaked us out.
But what’s especially bothersome is the writing in B.B. Chow is technically good. It’s measured. It’s pointed. It’s—well, it’s like this passage from a story about a woman with a crush on a computer repairman, “Wired for Life”:
At the word warranty, Charlie shied away. His eyes welled into little pools of sullenness.
October, he said.
Janie nudged her boobs against the glass counter. The receipt says 90 days.
Charlie smiled miserably. He did not look at Janie, nor especially at her boobs, but carried the adapter with its cord dragging behind and set it down on his worktable and disappeared into the back of the shop. He returned with his spool of solder and hunkered down before his sadder [sic] gun while Janie pretended not to notice. There was a delicious, excruciating aspect to the tableau.
I didn’t know pro writers were allowed to use the word boobs! It’s fantastic! We finally have a word for those megastructures on the cover of Maxim, Stuff, and FHM, for those neat balloons of fat (to be generous) that are the precursor of one’s being punched by one’s girlfriend! I had had to use the cocophonous term breasts. Or bosoms. Or nothing at all. Boobs! Neat! Thanks, Steve; quoting your best writing in your new collection gives me permission to talk about boobs without fear of retribution. You’ve also liberated bestiality (in “Appropriate Sex”), President-on-abolitionist action (in “Lincoln, Arisen”), and the idea of Michael Jackson’s dick (in “The Idea of Michael Jackson’s Dick”) as fruitful writing topics. They’re like new veins of gold to all writers. Let the rush begin.
Ok. Yeah. The serious part.
We’re talking medium-abuse here. A book is one medium, like television, graffiti, or a girlfriend’s left hook (don’t you dare say it can’t carry a message). Books are expensive. They demand expensive writing to justify the cost of paying the sponsoring editor, the acquisitions editor, the editorial assistant, the cover designer, the rights assistant, the manufacturer, the packager, the copyeditor, the UPS guy, the Barnes and Noble salesperson, and eventually the author, instead of, say, using that money and energy to, say, feed people. With the exception of “I Am as I Am” and “Larsen’s Novel,” a fine piece about the obligations between grown men, the stories in The Evil B.B. Chow are cheap. They are arrived at cheaply and leave the reader feeling cheaper. But, of course, saying this book would be better placed in a cheap medium like the Internet is like saying Hollywood shouldn’t have remade The In-Laws: Hollywood shouldn’t have, but hey, the money’s there, and they have mouths to feed too. It’s a frustrating thing, this—we know Almond can write well. His culinary piece in the current issue of Tin House so captured the care and humor in cooking a favorite meal for friends that I wondered if all that time I spent watching “Great Chefs” in college would have been better spent reading cooking magazines.
The Evil B.B. Chow is entertaining in its cheap way (boobs!). But Almond cribs simultaneously from that of Esquire and Toby Wolff—two types of writing many readers enjoy but which should never end up on the same page. He should pick one or the other at one time, and so should you....more
Pitched as a primer on comics, but doesn't follow through.
Reading Comics suffers from the same insularity-of-subject that the author himself identifiePitched as a primer on comics, but doesn't follow through.
Reading Comics suffers from the same insularity-of-subject that the author himself identifies as a problem in the comics world. While it offers a decent jumping-off point for a newbie who wants to know more about what's good to read, only about a third of the book is dedicated to the meaning and history of comics. The rest is a compilation of Wolk's essays on specific authors, series, and books, which means someone who expected a how-to on reading comics is left adrift, most of all because the majority of Reading Comics--despite the aims stated in the introduction--can be appreciated only by those familiar with the publications being referenced. Wolk and his publisher go to great lengths to secure reprint rights for many, many individual cells or pages of comics, but ultimately, out of context, these reproductions are only meaningful to those who have read the references works in full themselves.
So basically: use Reading Comics to select a handful of comics you would read yourself but only dive into the full book after having an idea of what Wolk is writing about....more
To describe Charles Simic as a master of suspense would be misleading, given the cliché refers to a genre rather than a technique available to all wriTo describe Charles Simic as a master of suspense would be misleading, given the cliché refers to a genre rather than a technique available to all writers. But that’s what he is. Simic, throughout his long, pleasantly varied career as a poet, memoirist, essayist, and critic, has always found a way to foreshadow his themes while always delaying the author-reader joint epiphany until the very last moment. Even when you know it’s coming, you’re still surprised.
In his new collection of poems of mixed success called My Noiseless Entourage, Simic can still surprise. I’ve long had my own projection of him as someone both avuncular and too-experienced, and now an image I keep of him is him, his hands cupped one over the other, offering something still-hidden, something I’m scared will be either too beautiful or really quite nasty. Consider this poem, “The Gamblers Upstairs,” from the first section of My Noiseless Entourage:
The faint rattle of dice rolling Late at night No one else hears—
They are wagering over me, placing bets,
The high rollers and their sidekicks On their knees. Little Joe from Baltimore, Ada from Decatur.
The noise of bones, The hush after each roll Keeping me awake— God’s throw or devil’s?
My love holding her hands over my eyes As we inch toward the stairs Stripped down to our underwear And liable to slip and break our necks.
Now, you know where that poem is heading. A narrator not falling asleep; invisible characters—bewildering forces—somewhere above. “God’s throw or devil’s?” arrives as welcome and punctual as an overnight train. But Simic’s trademark is in the unveilings of last stanzas, in this case the introduction of a lovely liaison between the lower room and upper (completing the perhaps unintentional Orthodox triptych of festal suite, bridal chamber, and afterlife) and the undercutting humor of breaking one’s neck as people above gamble on fate. It’s as though, to borrow that freshman comp crutch, the case is being presented in the early stanzas but the proper frame arrives only at the very last. The same things happen in Simic’s 1996 collection Walking the Black Cat, the poems ending with winners like “My shoes need laces / My pants need your finger to hold them up,” or children, “their faces demonic,” running around the blaze of an autumn leaf-burn.
My Noiseless Entourage I wouldn’t place at the top of Simic’s work. But that doesn’t matter, as each of the cleanly-styled motley-topicked poems betters most anything else you’ll read by poets today. His poems are still, as always, populated by gamblers, black cats, bums, sidelong naivete, and angrifyingly observant imagery. Simic’s felicity with imagery native to cities, farms, Yugoslavia, Manhattan—well, anyone, writer or not, would be jealous to have such a stash.
But he’s most at home in this collection with the language of death, as something both feared and intriguing. There “Absentee Landlord”—
The least he could do is put up a sign: AWAY ON BUSINESS So we could see it In the graveyard where he collects the rent
—and death-knowledge-pilfering in “Sweetest”—
Little candy in death’s candy shop I gave your sugar a lick When no one was looking, Took you for a ride on my tongue To all the secret places,
Trying to appear above suspicion As I went about inspecting the confectionary, Greeting the owner with a nod With you safely tucked away And melting to nothing in my mouth.
—and these lines from “To Fate”: “And me already like an old piano / Dangling out of a window at the end of a rope.” And these from “Slurred Words”: “I was just one more crow / Trailing after the pallbearers.” Mortality is the connecting filament in this collection. But even eerifying poems like the title piece finish up with a surprise, a centripetal couple of lines to spin the reader out of the page and into their own lives.
We were never formally introduced I had no idea of their number. It was like a discreet entourage Of homegrown angels and demons All of whom I had met before And had since largely forgotten.
In time of danger, they made themselves scarce. Where did they all vanish to? I asked some felon one night While he held a knife to my throat, But he was spooked too, Letting me go without a word.
It was disconcerting, downright frightening To be reminded of one’s solitude, Like opening a children’s book— With nothing better to do—reading about stars, How they can afford to spend centuries Traveling our way on a glint of light.
How Simic dances from felons to children’s books—and you can see it right there!—I can’t explain. But he pulls it off, and it’s jarring in its subtlety. It affirms Simic’s talent and makes My Noiseless Entourage one of those rare books: a contemporary poetry collection you’d actually pay money to have....more
In Jonathan Lethem’s home of Brooklyn, New York, on 5th Avenue, there lives a reassuringly odd, tough-looking store called Brooklyn Superhero Supply.In Jonathan Lethem’s home of Brooklyn, New York, on 5th Avenue, there lives a reassuringly odd, tough-looking store called Brooklyn Superhero Supply. Set, when I first saw it, along a row of graying or graffitied businesses, Superhero Supply (”Ever vigilant, ever true”) features “fully serviced capery, workspace for research and development, and industrial-grade services for superpowers,” whatever those might be.
Superhero Supply (actually a storefront for social work by the publisher/literary magazine McSweeney’s), like Lethem’s latest collection of short stories Men and Cartoons, evidences growing demand for the packaging, for adult comsumption, comics, cartoons, and superheroism. One hesitates to say these point toward growing popular acceptance–it’s hard to imagine one of these stores more than twenty miles from a college campus–but certainly a large and diverse enough population exists to support businesses more ambitious than the small, obstinate comicbook stores of old. In my New England, as well, Newbury Comics (”A wicked good time”) thrives at no fewer than 26 locations, in part because it knows how to exploit a market segment made up of college students, twixters, webcomic junkies, Simpsons fans, concert-goers, punks, ironists, and anyone else who would have $20 to drop on a particular object just to experience the thrill of being asked, “Mehe, funny. Where’d you get that?”
Men and Cartoons is meant for this market slice. It reads as very experimental for a writer as trusted by publishers as Lethem–author of the exciting, discombobulating novel Motherless Brooklyn and of The Fortress of Solitude among others. The stories are very short, the writing and narratives hurried, and the packager’s proofreading light. In fact, it reads exactly as what it is: a slapped-together collection of stories already placed elsewhere in magazines and journals trying to keep their page-counts down, a book seemingly forced to publication by the contractual obligations of both parties. Just a guess. Nevertheless, the stories are engaging, sometimes illuminating, and ultimately valuable for anyone interested in the trade between the port cities of literary fiction, pop culture, and maturing comicdom.
In Men and Cartoons’ first story, “The Vision,” the adult narrator finds a childhood classmate, who in youth had branded himself a superhero, cape and all, has moved in nextdoor. The girlfriend of Adam Cressner, nee The Vision, invites the narrator to a game of mafia (allowing Lethem to use many authors’ beloved crutch, the house-party-as-tension-builder). Mafia runs and sputters and finally drains the party-goers of their life, at which point the narrator suggests a favorite drinking game (of underage drinkers, at least) called I Never. To defend a flirting-partner after she was shamed by Cressners’ I-Neverism, the narrator determines to out The Vision’s childhood identity. A fine, clean, if predictable story but one exemplary of Lethem’s theme in this collection, “The Vision,” smashes together childhood and adulthood. In fact, it’s exemplary of a whole swath of contemporary fiction, one that writes the coming-of-age story backwards: characters, guided by other, less experienced characters, have epiphanies that hurl them with great suddenness backwards into their own childhoods.
Another Lethem crutch, appearing in Motherless Brooklyn, in “The Vision,” in the second piece, “Access Fantasy,” and in “Vivian Relf,” is the introduction of a pixie. Lethem’s character’s love interests are always small, half reticent and half bold, and physically intriguing. For example, of Doe in “The Vision,” Lethem writes, “Her tiny mouth was perfect apart from one incisor that seemed to have been inserted sideways for variation, like a domino”. His women reflect the ideal that has weirdly taken hold of twixter boys’ minds, the girl with the pretty face but funky hair, or with immaculate thrift-store style, or with a playfulness at turns beguiling and controlling. They’re girls who remind boys of youth. Men and cartoons.
In all, the stories bounce between a traditional realism and a comic-rhetoric-infused one. (The book’s dustjacket borrows the look of comics’ original brown-paper coverings.) The stories are episodic, like comics. Often you can just about see the bubble above a person’s head.
The hardest, keenest story in Men and Cartoons then is “Super Goat Man.” Super Goat Man himself is the comic equivalent of the one-hit wonder–he had appeared very briefly in a very obscure comic but managed to parlay that into a professorship at a New England college. You heard me. “Super Goat Man” suspends, like a good comic or sci-fi piece does, the reader’s disbelief in ways the reader didn’t think were possible. The character, as a superhero, is called upon to save a life but fails in full view of the college’s student body. It’s a painful overlaying of human nature on superhero nature, rather than the more common other way around.
Men and Cartoons isn’t without competition in its themes. The popularity of Hellboy and Spiderman in the theaters and the resiliency several years after its publication of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay shows that the infusion of childhood-conscious art into adult-market-conscious genres, businesses, and, well, adults has a ton of vitality. While Lethem will always be stronger in his longer writing, the short fiction in Men and Cartoons will stand on their own as fine examples of twixter literature’s exploration and growth....more
Power Ballads gets two stars because I'm a self-loathing member of the American M.F.A. community. I've stopped abiding some of our stranger beliefs, lPower Ballads gets two stars because I'm a self-loathing member of the American M.F.A. community. I've stopped abiding some of our stranger beliefs, like that short stories should be related by theme. That half a page of unidentified dialogue is just "something he'll grow out of". That you're not a man until you've dead-lifted 250 lbs. of foreshadowing.
People like me thus can't make it through Power Ballads without frustration and, ultimately, the kind of existential cracking only mended, in this case, by Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I grant you, it's really unfair to write a review in the light of whatever book you read immediately before or after...except that I had the chance not to read more of my community's writing and didn't take it....more
I finally gave up with about 100 pages left. (I don't think I've read that much of a book I wasn't enjoying.) I'm willing to cut writers some slack whI finally gave up with about 100 pages left. (I don't think I've read that much of a book I wasn't enjoying.) I'm willing to cut writers some slack when the work I'm reading is from a translation, but Snow was just so stilted, repetitive...generally, I stopped because none of the characters evolved and what was happening on page 50 was hardly distinguishable from page 350....more
Great book for anyone studying Monk. Not one to read casually, though, as it repeats lots of stories and information--it's an anthology of writing aboGreat book for anyone studying Monk. Not one to read casually, though, as it repeats lots of stories and information--it's an anthology of writing about Monk, not a biography....more
I'm still getting blown away by the well-reviewed batch of new graphic novels. Thus all I can say with any coherence is that Too Cool to Be ForgottenI'm still getting blown away by the well-reviewed batch of new graphic novels. Thus all I can say with any coherence is that Too Cool to Be Forgotten is great and definitely worth an afternoon of your full attention....more