Sunday, June 1, 2008

Books I Read in May 2008

The God File, by Frank Turner Hollon was a recommendation on a Friday Forgotten Books post at Brian Lindenmuth’s blog. Gabriel Black is 22 years into a life prison term for murder. Out of a twisted sense of honor, he took responsibility for shooting his lover’s husband, even though she pulled the trigger. In the bleak world in which he lives, he struggles with despair, loneliness, violence and hopelessness. He turns to the prison library to seek evidence of some kind of cosmic justice and finds a story about a man with a wife, children and a successful career who beats what was diagnosed as terminal cancer. The man believes his triumph over death proves the existence of God. Gabriel believes that a much more objective test for the existence of God would be to find evidence of Him in the hopeless world of prison. He begins to collect bits and pieces of evidence in the form of letters received, letters written but never sent, notes discovered and snippets of conversation and he keeps them in his God file. The story is dark but thoughtful and the prose is simple and precise, all the way to the inevitable ending. Here’s an excerpt from a chapter on suicide:

“I found a book called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly written by a Frenchman named Jean-Dominique Bauby. The man was healthy, married with children, and had a good job. One day, out of the blue, he had some type of stroke in his brain stem. The man literally woke up a few weeks later in the hospital completely paralyzed. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t even swallow. His only form of communication was blinking letters and having someone transcribe his words.

I couldn’t help comparing his prison with mine. We both lost our freedom and human independence. Neither of us deserved our condition, although I brought mine on myself and he was just struck down seemingly at random. Our walls are different, but walls just the same.”

Note: We watched the movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly the other night and it was excellent.

If you visited me last week and watched the funniest YouTube video on book promotion of all time, you’ve gotten an introduction to Dennis Cass. I read Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain after reading a comment he left at Editorial Ass last month. After reading his blog, I was curious enough about the book to give it a read. It's primarily a memoir with a fair amount of educational information about neuroscience woven throughout. The biggest question I had as I was reading was, how did he ever pitch this? It’s a very unusual format, but it works.

When Dennis was nineteen, his stepfather suffered a psychotic break. Fifteen years later, after Dennis had married and become a successful writer, he decided to immerse himself in the science of the brain to try to understand what had happened to his stepfather. His research included subjecting himself to a number of medical and psychological tests, which became pretty weird pretty fast. Reading his thoughts about his own brain and about the tests and what they meant was like being right there in his head with him. If you’ve watched the video, you know that Dennis is very funny and very smart. His story is both of those things, but it’s also very poignant and there are parts that are heartbreaking. My total enjoyment of this book was magnified even more because he is simply a wonderful writer.

“Later, when I talked to Sue Carter about my experiences as a new father, she called a newborn baby ‘an endocrine manipulation.’ (This was not entirely out of character. In her paper ‘The Neurobiology of Love’ she describes physical closeness as ‘the maintenance of proximity or voluntary contact with an attachment object.’) While this sounded a tad clinical, I also understood what she meant. Even if I hadn’t been studying the brain, there was a distinctly chemical feeling to the flood of love I felt for this boy.

I could see where the idea for Jesus came from. James Leckman, in his paper ‘Early Parental Preoccupations and Behaviors and their Possible Relationship to the Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,’ notes that 73 percent of mothers and 66 percent of fathers say that at three months their child is ‘perfect.’ There was that moment in the hospital when I looked at Owen and thought, He’s the son of God. There was no way to look at him and not feel that he had been sent to this Earth by a supreme being to right the world. This was what Joseph and Mary had experienced; no one had bothered to tell them this was how most new parents felt.

This feeling of the perfection of the universe extended to Liz as well. I had never felt more love for her, or more of a sense that we were meant to be together and start a family. But the joy soon manifested itself in unsettling ways, too. During those first days in the hospital it was very important that everyone agreed that my son was cute. And not only did they have to agree that he was cute, but in my newfound effort to be scientific about my life, they had to agree that their high appraisal of his beauty was an ‘objective measure.’

‘Cutest baby in the room,’ said the pediatrician who was on rounds.

‘I know,’ I said. ‘But, really. You’re a doctor. Don’t’ you think he’s the cutest? I mean, objectively?’

‘Cutest baby in the room,’ he said.”

Thanks to The Early Reviewer Program at LibraryThing, I was lucky enough to get an advance reader's edition of America America, by Ethan Canin. The book will be on sale June 24th.

Corey Sifter is the editor of a small newspaper in upstate New York and the story opens with the funeral of a former US Senator. The story alternates between the present and the period around 1971 when Nixon was in office and the country was torn apart by the Vietnam War.

At sixteen, Corey is hired to work on the grounds of the elegant Metarey estate. Liam Metarey is the son of a Scottish immigrant, who came to America and made his fortune in mining, steel and logging. The town of Saline, New York was built by the Metarey empire and practically every working class family, including Corey’s respects and looks up to Liam Metarey. Liam Metarey, his wife, two daughters and his son like Corey and invite him to family activities. He begins to spend most of his time with the Metareys. Liam Metarey becomes a benefactor to Corey and pays for him to attend an expensive preparatory school. Later, Metarey funds most of Corey's college tuition.

As Corey becomes more educated and sophisticated, he grows away from his working class parents. They want the best for him, so they support his choices, despite their unspoken pain at losing him. Not long after starting preparatory school, Corey begins working for Liam Metarey every weekend. Metarey has taken on the role of campaign manager for Senator Henry Bonwiller’s bid for the Presidency in the 1972 election. Bonwiller is a liberal Democrat that the local townspeople consider to be “the best friend a working man’s ever had.”

Corey is exposed to, but isn’t quite savvy enough to understand the machinations of old school politics and back room deal making. Metarey involves Corey peripherally in the cover up of a scandal, although Corey isn’t able to piece the entire story together until many years later.

The primaries get interesting after Senator Edmund Muskie weeps on national television, and it looks as if Senator Bonwiller has a good chance to secure the nomination and the Presidency. The descriptions of power struggle between all of the Democratic candidates in this story and the hints at pre-Watergate subterfuge from the Nixon campaign made me think about what's happened since.

“The forgotten of this country have a consistent history of turning on their champions, and I suppose the way working men and women have forsaken the very politicians who could help them most speaks of the primacy of emotion in politics. Perhaps the great decline of FDR’s party, which was beginning in Henry Bonwiller’s time, didn’t come about because Democrats favored a logical argument over a moral one, but simply because they clung to the idea that either one mattered at all.”

The story climaxes when a number of individual plot threads and tragedies converge and in the present day, Corey is able to see the truth of what happened through his own journalistic lens and gain clarity and perspective on his relationships with his children and his parents.

“It doesn’t take many years of fatherhood to think you finally understand your own parents, and I’ve long since arrived at that point with mine. And like most everyone else, I’ve grown more grateful for the things they gave me and more respectful of what must have been admirable courage as they watched me go – in my case, to a life utterly different from their own. And as I’ve watched our own girls move away now, too – first to sleepovers, then to summer camps, then to college and boyfriends, then to jobs and husbands – as I’ve watched them one by one walk their own ways, I can only hope that they too arrive at this same juncture, that they too come to see us for what we’ve always tried to do for them, even if it’s not always what we’ve succeeded at. Maybe this is nothing but vanity. But I wonder how we’ve fared with them. I wonder which of our idle words have wounded them and which, years later and a thousand miles away, have buoyed them; which of our hopes have lifted them over the daunting obstacles in their lives and which have pressed back against their own ideas of themselves. I think I know my children, know all three of them, yet I’m certain from my own childhood that of course I don’t.”

Ethan Canin is a masterful narrative stylist. Once I started reading, I tore through the book, unable to put it down. Since I finished, I find myself still thinking about it. Themes of loyalty and love, power and morality, and fathers and children all contribute to a satisfying, well written story.

Once again, I credit Head Butler and Jesse Kornbluth’s spot on recommendations for The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield is a best selling author and screenwriter and best known for The Legend of Bagger Vance. The book is short and it’s simple, but it’s powerful and the forward, by Robert McKee provides a good prelude:

“To begin Book One, Pressfield labels the enemy of creativity Resistance, his all-encompassing term for what Freud called the Death Wish – that destructive force inside human nature that rises whenever we consider a tough, long-term course of action that might do for us or others something that’s actually good. He then presents a rogue’s gallery of the many manifestations of Resistance. You will recognize each and every one, for this force lives within us all – self-sabotage, self-deception, self-corruption. We writers know it as ‘block’, a paralysis whose symptoms can bring on appalling behavior.”

This book is pithy, but revelatory and timely. I needed the kick in the ass this book gave me.

The book ends on a note that I hadn't considered, but it’s well worth pondering:

“It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself, you hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

How about that?

I didn't read nearly as much in May as I did in April, but I'm moving forward on The Foundling Wheel again and I'm pretty happy about that. In fact, I can't seem to stop writing. I'm overwriting at this point and I know I'm overwriting, but as long as it's coming easily, I don't mind if it will help me find the rest of the story and get to the end. If I have to cut out 90% of what's coming now, it won't bother me at all.

This phenomenon is new to me. Has it ever happened to any of you?

How about reading? What good books have you read lately?


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I've been a reading fool--it's been great. Here's what I can recall--and I loved them all! "The Painter from Shang-hai" by Jennifer Cody Epstein, "The Wednesday Sisters" by Meg Waite Clayton (an ARC), "The Liar's Diary" by Patry Francis, "Matters of Faith" by Kristy Kiernan (another ARC) and I'm nearly finished with "The Knitting Circle" by Ann Hood.

Oh, and yes, Lisa, overwriting is good--among all the extra words will be seem golden ones. So glad to hear you're back at it!

Yogamum said...

My god woman, when do you sleep?

I love that quote from "The War of Art."

Seachanges said...

Yes, I was here and will visit again. I'll add you to my blogroll: What a lot of books to get through, but great books. As someone interested in writing as well as reading, have you read James Wood 'How Fiction Works'? It's excellent

Lana Gramlich said...

I've gotten so busy with painting & self-promotion I haven't had time to read a book in quite some time. You make me miss it!

Charles Gramlich said...

Right now I'm re-reading the Talera books to help me with my new book so I can say I'm reading good books. At least to me.

You certainly got quite a bit of reading done. More than me.

Patti said...

the war of art just made my list...and i am with everyone else. seriously, you read buttloads...

(is this thing on? can i say buttloads here?!)

debra said...

The War of Art is now on my list, too.
I'm reading Pope Joan now; I just finished Eileen Favorite's The Heroines: a Novel and have War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning on the nightstand. Right now the garden is calling my name loudly during the day.

Lisa said...

Judy, Don't you just love it when you have a good reading month? Your list reminds me that I've always wanted to read Kristy Kiernan's CATCHING GENIUS and I haven't done so yet. I've been out to her website several times and something tells me I would really like her books.

I was thinking of you yesterday as I was spewing paragraph after extraneous paragraph because the thought popped into my head that by the time I'm ready to print the current rough draft chapter out, I may go through more than one pen writing "yuck" next to things :)

Yogamum, Weird confession -- for some reason I was writing a ton yesterday and then started to do this post (knowing I also needed to post a review of the Ethan Canin on LibraryThing and send it to Random House) and I just couldn't stop. I finally went to bed at close to seven this morning and woke up after two. I think I'm turning into a vampire.

Seachanges, I've just spent ages at both of your blogs -- the book reviews alone are stupendous. I love James Woods and I've got his collection of essays and his novel (I confess that the second purchase was based purely on curiosity as to how a critic could possibly stand the pressure of churning out a novel). I've read some of the essays and have not read the novel yet, but HOW FICTION WORKS is now definitely on my list of things to read. I'm currently reading THE ELEVENTH DRAFT, which is a collection of essays on writing from past students and/sometimes or instructors at the Iowa Workshop and I must say it's excellent.

Lana, Well log into LibraryThing one of these days. I was on it last night and your name popped up as another reader who has the two Charles Gramlich books I own :)

Charles, Reading your own books after they've "cooled off" must be an interesting exercise. I wonder if you run across things you don't remember writing?


Debra, Oh, I know you'll like THE WAR OF ART. Have a great time in the garden!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Loved some of Ethan Canin's early work (The Palace Thief?) but haven't read him in years. Thanks for the reminder. The Other Patti

Lisa said...

Patti, Ethan Canin baffles me, simply because he's managed to excel in three completely unrelated areas. I've had suspicions he might not really be human. I bought his first short story collection, THE EMPEROR OF THE AIR, way back when it was first published in the 80s. He was only 27 at the time and it really launched his career. This was AFTER he'd already gotten an undergraduate degree at Stanford on mechanical engineering (huh?), and AFTER he wrote a piece that was published in Redbook while still an undergrad (it was like the 3rd short story he'd ever written). Then he was accepted into the Iowa Workshop and did that, and THEN he went to Harvard and became a medical doctor. And THEN he went back to teach at Iowa, which I think he's still doing. I suppose the thing that I admire most about all of that is that so few people would ever be willing to risk all of those changes and yet, he has the confidence and ability to excel at everything he does. It really kind of freaks me out.

Greg said...

lisa, you are a blogging machine!

ChrisEldin said...

Cool review about Dennis' book. He's going to be on my blog the week of June 23 for Author's Week. One of those days he'll be promoting his book. Should be loads of fun!!!!

(Do I have your email? If not, and if you'd like to be on my email list for Author's Weeks promotions, you can email me at Everyone's email address will be kept private because I send the announcements out as a BCC.)

Billy said...

The God File sounds like it has a dynamite plot. I really want to get it. Thanks!!!

Melissa Marsh said...

The War of Art sounds really good. May have to check that one out.

I'm in a reading slump again. Can't find a book that captures my attention. And when I don't have a book to read, I feel...lost. Does that make sense?

steve said...

Lisa, I spent much of the 1972 campaign either following the campaign or working on one. I went to the Iowa caucuses as a Muskie supporter that year. The whole flatbed truck incident with Muskie was too bizarre--he ignored the advice of campaign staff to make that speech. He probably had the best chance of defeating Nixon in '72 and he blew it with one speech. (I switched to McGovern after it was clear Muskie was self-destructing, only to see that campaign self-destruct.) I'll have to take a look zt America, America.

Lisa said...

Greg, Sometimes it seems that way, doesn't it?

Chris, Very cool! I'll definitely be looking forward to it. Yes, I think you have it, but I'll email it to you just to make sure.

Billy, The way he wrote it is pretty interesting. It's not told in the traditional narrative format; rather, each chapter has a heading that's about something he put into "The God File". He does provide a beginning an ending that give it shape as a story, but it's not told in the traditional way.

Melissa, THE WAR OF ART really is good. It was a good reality check for me to clear away the distracting thoughts and activities that keep me from writing.

I do know that sensation, although I've been lucky for quite a while and I've found things to read that do really engage me. Of course it helps to have a TBR stack big enough to run a bookmobile from!

Steve, I think you would probably like it. I vaguely remember the Muskie incident, but it definitely plays into this story. There's a lot of layering that make this really a fine book.

Patry Francis said...

You quote was just what I needed to read today--a reminder that the work matters.

I'm usually a slow reader because I only read right before bed, but this month, I spent a few long afternoons on the couch reading and caught up a bit on my list.

Lisa said...

Patry, Hello! I loved that quote too. I think the overwhelming majority of writers, especially unpublished writers feel a sense of guilt about the time they spend writing. What a refreshing concept to think that no only is it not a selfish act, but it may be a disservice to the universe not to do it, if it's what we are meant to do.

I usually only read at night too, but I have a bad habit of staying up and reading half the night! Sometimes I can't help it :)

Sustenance Scout said...

Here I was so relieved you had a short list and now all these comments feature oodles of new ones to check out. Will it never end?! I sure hope not. :) I've been gardening with the girls and enjoying the weather before it gets too hot. Just started Judy's All the Numbers, still thinking about Jennifer's Roadmap to Holland. Enjoy the writing streak!! K.

Carleen Brice said...

You're in the zone. Enjoy it!

Shauna Roberts said...

I loved the quote from The War Of Art.

My reading list for May:

Relative Danger by June Shaw (mystery)

John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café by William Hammett (magical realism; so good I didn't want it to end)

Judge by Karen Traviss (the last book in a six-book science fiction series; it was disappointing in that she spent a quarter of the book bringing readers up to speed on the very complicated happenings in the first five books)

Aphrodite in Jeans: Adventure Tales about Men, Midlife and Motherhood by Katherine Shirek Doughtie (nonfiction that I found at the L.A. Times Festival of Books a few weeks ago)

You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen (nonfiction and a good book for every writer to read)

Cold in the Light by Charles Gramlich (science fiction or horror; beautiful, beautiful language and hard to put down)

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf