February 6, 2006
This issue has long, thoughtful responses to the Truth/Memoir/Fiction discussion begun last issue from Carole Rosenthal and Keith Maillard as well as more suggestions for reading Iris Murdoch, more thoughts on Joan Didion, and, of course, other suggestions for what to read.
One book I want to mention first is the latest by Joanne Greenberg, author of I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN FAME. Her new book is APPEARANCES, published by Montemayor Press, which (truth in advertising!) has also published and reprinted work of mine. I picked up APPEARANCES to take with me on the train to New York because the book I was already reading was too large to carry. And then I couldn’t stop reading, and I ended up crying my eyes out.
Yes, dear reader, it made me cry. It is an uplifting story with mostly good people in it. It is also full of interest information about everything from the practice of ski law to wedding planning. The characters in the novel have real jobs and generally enjoy their work. I can imagine someone calling it a novel with a message or even a didactic novel, but it seems to be that the kind of graceful teaching going on here is as legitimate in fiction as any of the other things fiction does, like building suspense, sharing intense sensual experiences, or exploring the rhythms of common language.
The heart of the story is a father hunt. The main character, the ski lawyer, discovers that his father is not dead, and is, indeed (– warning! Plot spoiler coming – ) in prison for child molesting. I think that a lot of people will find the empathy for the child molester difficult, but Greenberg handles this with great aplomb and a kind of bare honesty that I found really moving.
It is, I should say, a book for grown-ups– not the subject matter, but the tone. I’m sure there are fourteen year old readers who would be caught up in it, but the target audience is not really the famous 18-34 year old big spenders. And frankly, I think we can use more novels for the rest of us. I have always read in part to learn how to live, and it is a great pleasure to read something that focuses on living beyond the age of twenty-four. I’m grateful to Montemayor from bringing this one out.
Meredith Sue Willis
IF YOU’RE GOING TO BE IN YELLOW SPRINGS...
Just Released from Plain View Press: THE MEASURE OF EVERYTHING by Ed Davis . I’ve read this book, and recommend it to everyone . It’s an American novel that takes grassroots political action seriously. It captures how a political movement can develop and even succeed. The novel culminates in the auction of the farm, a public event that both fulfills plot expectations and uplifts the reader without any sugar coating. Place your order—and find out more about Ed’s books—at http://www.davised.com/ And if you happen to be in Yellow Springs, you’re invited to a book signing and concert at The Emporium at 233 Xenia Avenue, Yellow Springs, Friday, February 17, Reading 6:30-7:00, Concert:7-8:30 p.m. Directions and a map are available at Ed Davis.com.
MORE ON JOAN DIDION
Ardian Gill says, “Re: Didion. I've liked her earlier books but the YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING was a bit self-indulgent, and her refusal to accept the reality of Dunne's death was hard to fathom.”
Whereas Rebecca Kavaler writes, “I have never cared much for her, finding her cold and remote, while acknowledging that, particularly in her nonfiction, she writes well. But when you ask where does she get off touting HER grief over that of a mother in Ethiopia etc.., the answer is very simple. History is written by the victors, they say. Actually, it's written by writers. As is the explication of human emotions. That mother in Ethiopia can't write, which means that HER grief will be restricted to her own heart. Didion's, on the other hand, will be felt by multitudes. This is, I suppose, one of the fringe benefits of being a very good writer, which she undoubtedly is. (I had the same qualms, I admit, reading her book, which however I found one of her strongest.”
FICTION, MEMOIR, TRUTH, LEROY AND FREY
Keith Maillard writes, “As to Leroy [J.T. LeRoy the West Virginia boy prostitute who is turning probably to be a hoax] I’ve been following the developments in this story of the loveliest literary hoax since Carlos Casteneda. No, of course, there’s nothing wrong with a middle-aged woman imagining the life of a boy prostitute – any more than there was anything wrong with a middle-aged man (me) imagining the life of a young country club woman in the fifties [Maillard’s novel GLORIA], but I didn’t assume a woman’s pseudonym and attach it to the writing and then hire a woman of Gloria’s age to impersonate the author in public appearances. I think we’re disturbed about the Leroy case because it calls into question what we think (and feel) about authorship… the way the popular media seems always to assume that all fiction is always autobiographical (I find this maddening)… and also how we feel about celebrity, the way some writers create large public personae for themselves and then market that rather than their fiction per se. SARAH, I thought, was a pretty good first novel but certainly not a spectacular one, and the leaked suggestions that Leroy was writing thinly disguised autobiography certainly helped to sell the book. (No matter what we say, we’re all of us still looking for somebody to tell us something that’s TRUE.)
“But there’s another question that nobody seems to be asking yet: why West Virginia? Much of SARAH takes place in that contemporary, hard-to-define landscape I’ve called ‘urban magic realism’ (this can shade into cartoon writing very easily) and so is not meant to be taken straight – certainly not as standard-issue realism. But there were enough authentic West Virginia details to take me in – me, a West Virginia writer. So now I’m thinking, yeah, WHY West Virginia? The loopiest place the author could think of? The land of hillbillies and weird happenings? As West Virginia writers, should we be offended by this – or should we be having a good laugh? I don’t know. I’d love to hear anybody else’s ideas on this topic.”
Carole Rosenthal says, “People ought to be reading fiction ‘for a dose of truth.’ In fact, I used to say that regularly for years in my classes, particularly when students defined nonfiction and fiction initially defined as ‘true’ and ‘not true.’ I think it is a losing battle though. Part of the cachet of JT Leroy's fiction was, of course, his/her invented personality. The same is true in different proportions in Frey's memoir [James Frey, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, first honored then lambasted by Oprah], apparently. The whole thing pisses me off. It is the commodification of ‘the author’– commodified as is everything in our lives these days, including our experiences and even the shape of our imaginations.
“Memoir, of course, is an evolving form. It is different from journalism, or biography, or even autobiography, although it can contain elements, or even the form, of all of those. Good literature, in my view, is genuinely ‘moving.’ That is, it actually shifts your perception of the world, both internal and external, so that when you emerge from the work's universe, familiar people and events and even the geography may look slightly different to you. It is interesting that it is sensational or confessional writing about sensational topics that has popularized the memoir, made it a more commercial genre for the big publishers than ‘fiction.’ Leroy's transgressive fiction was popular because the invented persona of the author made it ‘true,’ based on ‘his’ own 'true story.’.... Publishers intuit that people want to view their own dark undersides, their shadow selves, through the lens of sensational and usually redemptive confession. My unsettling perception– and not a novel one– is that the illusion of truth has come to be cherished as ‘fact.’ Very well-packaged ‘truths’ make for the most popular reading, and authors are packaged as personalities. When the public face is pulled off, then people are furious. It is the illusion that these ‘facts’ about these created personalities are TRUE that makes me think that Stephen Colbert really hawked it when he coined the word ‘truthiness.’
“Thus we live in a world suffused by lies, big, big political lies, corporate lies, and what John Berger refers to as ‘publicity’ – publicity that is unanalyzed and lies that are insufficiently challenged. I find the atmosphere very annoying. This new unveiling of lies in the Frey memoir and in the underlying assumption about the author and his background in Leroy's case feel like a kind of yucky grace note to the cult of celebrity and gossip that has substituted for inner life in our culture.
“On a personal note, since I too am writing a ‘memoir,’ I'm worried about the publishing future of the form. Maybe I just need another word for what it is that I am doing– the stories that are unfolding from memory. But memory itself is constantly shifting. There are many different ways of seeing an event or a series of events as you go through life and change your viewing perspective. For instance, I am not the same person in relation to my mother that I was as a child, or even, as it turns out, as I was last week. So what I am writing and what shape it takes is still not pinned down for me. Nor do I want it pinned down artificially by a pre-packaged form. My bottom line, is the same as yours. I want to tell the truth. The truth has many facets, many ways that it can be viewed. I think Maxine Hong Kingston's THE WOMAN WARRIOR: A MEMOIR OF A GIRLHOOD AMONG GHOSTS was stunning because it employed fictional techniques to portray not only the characters, but also our reliance on language to understand the shifty and shifting nature of what we represent and what is represented to us as the factual world.
“The one other point I'd like to make, I guess, is that the imagination itself is threatening because of its ambiguity, the uncertainty of where you end up when you are ‘moved’ by art. It's a little scary to be surrounded by so much uncertainty, when we live in a world in which we are bombarded by ‘news’ and one which feels more and more unstable, our own myths sliding away from us quickly in the present political climate. How ironic and thought-provoking that ‘reality shows’ are the most popular and profitable from the TV networks. To both feed our imagination and to trivialize it, everything is reduced to the common denominator of gossip.”
EVERYONE HAS A FAVORITE MURDOCH!
Adam Sexton (see my notes on his book in NEWSLETTER #79) says, “Murdoch's acknowledged masterpiece is THE SEA, THE SEA. I recommend it enthusiastically.”
Dorothy Wick comments: “You asked for suggestions of other Murdoch books to read and I want to recommend her first book UNDER THE NET. I, too, was not a Murdoch reader (and somehow or the other had the idea I wouldn't care for her) until I took Adam Sexton's course "Reading Fiction for Fiction Writers." We read "THE SEVERED HEAD" for her skill in handling dialogue and I was impressed (also, liked her descriptions of London, especially at night, as I lived there for a year quite a few years ago and her writing brought back the feel of the place). But, I didn't go out and pursue other Murdoch titles until I read Carolyn See MAKING A LITERARY LIFE: ADVICE FOR WRITERS AND OTHER DREAMERS (which, incidentally, I found top-notch for that genre - See's style is so good, clear and practical advice told in very amusing, witty prose. I especially enjoyed the chapter on 'Pretend to be a writer.') In See's chapter on Geography, Time, and Space she writes:...’Iris Murdoch in UNDER THE NET, one of the most wonderful novels in the English language, invents a hapless hero who, along with his equally hapless sidekick, feels that he must steal a German shepherd, a movie-star dog named Mr. Mars from an invidious villain. Mr. Mars is in a cage in the villain's living room. The cage is too big for the door. A cab is waiting outside. Time is of the essence. The cage could go through the door if it were turned on its side, but when that happens, Mr. Mar's paws go through the bars. Those five or six pages of gorgeous fiction say more about space, existential acts, and the random quality of the universe than all of Sartre and Camus combined.’ Naturally, I wanted to read the book immediately and there it was on my bookshelves (reinforcing my contention that - yes, I must hang onto all these old paperbacks). What luck! I immediately plunged into my yellowed Avon 1967 paperback copy of what the publishers were obviously trying to market to a 'hip' generation (sexy girl on cover with come-on ‘A lusty novel of the swinging city's movie world and underground night life.’ The novel was originally published in l954, and the events, although madcap and eccentric were probably not ones that the 60's readership the publishers were trying to attract could identify with). In addition to the action with Mr. Mars (he becomes a very sympathetic player in the plot), there are some marvelous descriptions of a Mrs. Tinckham's shop which is full of cats (the function of this shop, Mrs. Tinckham herself and the hero's use of this establishment are wonderfully rich). One of my favorites is an account of a inebriated philosophic midnight swim the hero makes with his sidekick and the editor of the Independent Socialist. If I would have any critical comments on this book, I guess it would have to be that it is almost too rich in plot! What a wonderful fertile imagination Murdoch had. There is so much action, events happening, and the ending doesn't come together neatly ending. The book sort of peters out, but it is so wonderful and richly written, I can't fault it!”
Keith Maillard adds, “Back in the early 80s I went through a period of a couple years when I was addicted to Murdoch. She’s a truly wacky writer, and I loved her to pieces. She was a philosophy professor, and each of her books deals with a philosophical problem (or problems). I’d suggest for your next one THE NICE AND THE GOOD which is my favorite. It’s about exactly what the title says – the difference between NICE and GOOD – and it’s lots of fun. Another good one, something we’d call “edgy” today, is the strange, dark THE BLACK PRINCE. It ’s not exactly fun, but it’s certainly engaging.”
CONTEMPORARY LATVIAN POETRY IN THE DRUNKEN BOAT
JC Todd and Margita Gailitis have translated many Latvian poems. Some are recent, a window into current Latvian/Baltic thought. Others are poems of the Soviet-occupation when publishing was difficult and sometimes dangerous. JC says the poems are “incredible, moving, fierce, sorrowful engagements with oppression and freedom. Working with them, I have felt they could be seeds for drama, dance, film, visual and plastic arts, music. They are that powerful. Also included are translations of poems from Russian, the Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, and Slovenia....THE DRUNKEN BOAT is free because it's online at www.thedrunkenboat.com .
Please take look and if something develops for you from these poems, please let me know.”
You can get in touch with JC Todd at firstname.lastname@example.org .
POETS YOU MAY NOT HAVE READ
Dee Rimbaud at Thunderburst writes that he has added a new section to his website at http://www.thunderburst.co.uk/ 'Recommended Poets'. This section has links to websites featuring the work of 200+ poets, as recommended by poets, writers, artists and magazine editors on his mailing list. “If curiosity gets the better of you, you might want to find out what floats other peoples' boats. There are plenty of exciting, interesting and often unheard of poets out there to explore. You might also want to check out if your own personal favourites have been represented.... Who knows, you might even find that you are one of the recommended poets (there are quite a number of poets on my mailing list who have been nominated).”
MORE IDEAS FOR READING AND LISTENING
Lynne Gleason writes, “When I read that you enjoyed the war scenes in A FAREWELL TO ARMS, I had to write to recommend a book out of the group here in Denver. Take a look at Nick Arvin's ARTICLES OF WAR. It's just a little book, but it's stuck with me. I haven't been a big fan of audiobooks, until my drive to California last month. My son recommended THE LIFE OF PI. Though I have the book in my stack, I hadn't read it, so the story was new. The reading is absolutely delightful! And, I still intend to dive into that hard copy! “
THE PEDESTAL HAS ITS FIVE YEAR ANNIVERSARY!
Celebrate with THE PEDESTAL! http://www.thepedestalmagazine.com/
AND THE PEDESTAL’S EDITOR WILL BE READING AT A COLLEGE NEAR YOU!
(This info is posted in the Schedule section of his site, too):
Reading/Greenville, SC Date: 2/21/2006 Time: 11:30:00 AM
Description: Reading at Furman College. 3300 Poinsett Highway; Greenville, SC. For additional
Reading/Bryn Mawr, PA Date: 3/2/2006 Time: 7:00:00 PM
Description: Featured reader, along with Bob Small, in this series hosted and moderated by Eileen D'Angelo. Barnes and Noble; 720 Lancaster Avenue; Bryn Mawr, PA.
Reading/Newton, NJ Date: 3/3/2006 Time: 7:00:00 PM Featured reader, along with Gretna Wilkinson, at the Idiom Reading Series held at Sussex County Community College. One College Hill Rd.; Newton, NJ.
Reading/New York, NY Date: 3/5/2006 Time: 3:00:00 PM Description: Featured reader, along with Karen Hildebrand. The Back Fence (corner of Thompson Street); 155 Bleeker Street; New York, NY.
MARINA BUDHOS READING AT THE GOAT IN SOUTH ORANGE
From Marina Budhos: “I would like to invite you to a book party and reading of my new novel, ASK ME NO QUESTIONS, at The Goat Café in South Orange, on Saturday, February 25th, 2006, from 4 to 6 p.m....The novel tells the story of two sisters, illegal Muslim immigrants, whose lives fall apart when their father is detained as a suspected terrorist. It's received a starred review in BOOKLIST and is a Junior Library Guild selection....I'd especially like to invite those who have middle-schoolers and high schoolers, as this novel is written for them. However, it's also a crossover for adult readers, whom I believe will also enjoy the book.” For more information,see http://www.marinabudhos.com/ .
...and of course there’s a little ad on the back, but I’ve tried them and they really do what they say. http://www.vistaprint.com