Thursday, July 3, 2008

Books I Read in June 2008

This list may look familiar because the books I finished in June are the same five I listed in my ten year meme post, plus one.

The Eleventh Draft, edited by Frank Conroy was a great recommendation from Tim Hallinan. This 1999 collection of twenty three essays was written by authors who are graduates of and/or teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The authors are: T. Coraghessan Boyle, Ethan Canin, Justin Cronin, Charles D’Ambrosio, Stuart Dybek, Deborah Eisenberg, Tom Grimes, Doris Grumbach, Barry Hannah, James Hynes, William Lashner, Fred G. Leebron, Margot Livesey, Elizabeth McCracken, James Alan McPherson, Chris Offutt, Jayne Anne Phillips, Susan Power, Francine Prose, Marilynne Robinson, Scott Spencer, Abraham Verghese and Geoffrey Wolff, with an introduction by Frank Conroy.

Conroy was intentionally vague with his instructions to the authors. He told them to write about writing. Some wrote essays that might have been classroom lectures on craft, some on creativity and process, some are deeply personal, some philosophical and some are about the publishing business. I got something from nearly all of them.

Ethan Canin’s essay, Smallness and Invention was one of my favorites. He talks about his experience arriving at Iowa with very little writing experience. His initial approach to writing short stories was to try to emulate John Cheever.

“I would seek out those elongated phrases, those elided leaps into the world of ardor and transcendence and unearthed human longing that shone in his stories like gems beneath a stream.”

He claims his first stories were “dismal”, although somehow I doubt that’s possible. He went back to Cheever for inspiration and began typing out paragraphs of his work. This, he claims was as important an exercise as he’d ever performed because he noticed that what he considered to be Cheever’s brilliant insights were always preceded by and usually followed by a great deal of small detail. He initially attempted to layer more detail into his own work, only to discover:

“…that the progression from detail to epiphany is not a technique used merely for its effect on the reader, but that this method is in fact how a writer discovers his own material.

This changed my writing forever. To put it another way: I had chanced upon the discovery that for the writer is not a moral pondering or grand emotion that are the entrance to a story, but detail and small event.”

Rose’s Garden, by Carrie Brown, was a gift from the lovely and talented Jennifer Duncan. This wonderful book swap came about when I did a first lines post and Jennifer said she’d keep reading The Dogs of March, by Ernest Hebert. I love the book and told her I wanted to send it to her. Jennifer then told me she wanted to share one of her favorite authors and she sent me Carrie Brown’s first novel, which is also set in New Hampshire.

Carrie Brown is the author of four novels and a collection of short stories. She has won many awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. There’s a great interview with her from May of 2002 here.

Publishers Weekly said this about Rose’s Garden:

“When Conrad Morrissey's wife, Rose, dies after 50 years of marriage, it takes an angelic visit to save him from his grief. That is the familiar premise of Brown's sweet, gentle first novel, set in the small town of Laurel, N.H. Once the ghost of his dead father-in-law prompts Conrad to concern himself with the living instead of the dead, he discovers that Rose's mysterious friend Hero, a slightly retarded girl with whom she shared a love of gardening, has also been receiving instruction from the dead. "And what had it been to Hero? He could not guess, except to believe that her world had always been filled with voices, the spokesmen of recrimination and doubt." As rain threatens to obliterate Laurel's ancient dam, and the town itself, Conrad finds new meaning in the memory of his wife and in devotion to the White Mountains community where they both spent the best years of their lives. A town full of sympathetic characters, including the widowed neighbor who can only sleep when every light in the house is on, and the beleaguered editor of the local paper, round out this sensitive debut.”

This is a beautifully written book and Carrie Brown’s prose is lyrical and lovely. The story builds up slowly in the beginning and less patient readers may have trouble with the pacing. I enjoyed the slow read and I delighted in getting to know the characters so well.

This excerpt takes place in the local newspaper office, after Conrad, the main character, has seen an angel in his dead wife’s garden and wants a story on the sighting published. Nolan Peak, the newspaper editor has refused his request and sent him on his way.

“Betty Barteleme, the walleyed gatekeeper at Peak’s newspaper, lowered her glasses when Conrad came back into the front office. He lingered there, trying to find the words to say what he felt. Nonsense? He thought. What does he know?

Miss Barteleme sniffed, waved her letter opener at Conrad. ‘Go on home now, Conrad Morrissey,’ she said through her nose as Conrad stood there, gazing at her, thinking. ‘You’ve bothered Mr. Peak enough already for one day. Go on home before I take a broom to you and your feathers.’ But then, as if remembering Conrad’s recent loss, she softened. ‘There’s no point in waiting. He’s not going to see you again this morning. He’s a very busy man. Very, very busy.’ She leaned over and patted his arm. ‘Go on.’ And she waved the letter opener toward the door.

Conrad looked down, brushed at this trousers, saw a feather drift across the floor toward Miss Barteleme’s dimpled ankle, turning over on itself like a tumbleweed. Miss Barteleme, of the fat, powder white Pan-Cake cheeks and penciled eyebrows and two-tone pantsuit – sizing her up, Conrad imagined that she now fancied she herself had a way with words, as if the talent for it were contagious. She guarded Nolan Peak like a little flat-faced dog, irksome and loyal. Now here was Conrad, squared off in a wordless confrontation with this officious woman who acted as though any business of the paper’s readers was entirely irrelevant – even a hindrance – to the higher purpose of her beloved Peak’s mysterious mission.

Well, you two deserve each other, Conrad thought.”

Thank you, Jennifer for introducing me to a gifted author. I plan to read more of Carrie Brown’s work.

The House on Fortune Street, by Margot Livesey was released in June and Margot Livesey’s essay in The Eleventh Draft motivated me to read her.

From Publishers Weekly:

“The absorbing latest from Livesey (Homework) opens multiple perspectives on the life of Dara MacLeod, a young London therapist, partly by paying subtle homage to literary figures and works. The first of four sections follows Keats scholar Sean Wyman: his girlfriend, Abigail, is Dara’s best friend, and the couple lives upstairs from Dara in the titular London house. While Dara tries to coax her boyfriend Edward to move out of the house he shares with his ex-girlfriend and daughter, Sean receives a mysterious letter implying that Abigail is having an affair, and both relationships start to fall apart. The second section, set during Dara’s childhood, is narrated by Dara’s father, who has a strange fascination with Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and shares Dodgson’s creepy interest in young girls. Dara’s meeting with Edward dominates part three, which mirrors the plot of Jane Eyre, and the final part, reminiscent of Great Expectations, is told mainly from Abigail’s college-era point of view. The pieces cross-reference and fit together seamlessly, with Dara’s fate being revealed by the end of part one and explained in the denouement. Livesey’s use of the classics enriches the narrative, giving Dara a larger-than-life resonance.”

The characters are complex and deeply flawed, and there are no happy endings for anyone in this story.This New York Times Sunday Book Review by Liesl Schillinger is excellent.It’s an intricate and deeply layered character exploration.

Abigail is an independent woman, focused on self-preservation who appears to need no one but herself. She’s got an innate ability to attract men and keep them around for as long as it suits her and to just as easily discard and forget about them. She’d be entirely unlikable and shallow if you didn’t know anything about the circumstances of her upbringing.

Dara is the opposite. Relationships and sex are meaningful and serious, but men don't flock to her. She’s compassionate and sensitive and the sudden, unexplained disappearance of her father from the family’s life when she was ten explains everything one needs to know about her.

While reading this book, I found myself continually bringing aspects of the story up to Scott. It’s the kind of book you can’t wait to discuss with someone. If there were a book club full of people who like the same books I do, this would be a perfect selection.

This was a page-turner and I fear that Margot Livesey has done far more with this story than I was able to pick up and appreciate with one rapid read-through. I suspect I will be re-reading this one, and seeking out more of this author’s work.

Simon Says, by Kathryn Eastburn. I read this because it’s the tragic true account of a triple murder that was planned and carried out by four Colorado Springs teenagers at a time when I was living in the Springs. My interest in juveniles serving long or life sentences (see Compassion in Juvenile Sentencing for more on that subject) led me to this one.It's one of the more bizarre murder cases I’ve ever read about.

From Publishers Weekly:

“On New Year's Eve 2000, Isaac Grimes, a Colorado Springs high school sophomore, went on a sleepover at the rural Colorado home of the grandparents of his former best friend Tony Dutcher. There, Isaac confessed three months later, he slit Tony's throat while his accomplice and fellow student Jon Matheny shot to death Carl Dutcher, a military veteran and licensed arms dealer, and his wife, JoAnna. Grimes and Matheny blamed high school senior Simon Sue for planning the triple homicide; Sue had bullied them into believing they were guerrillas following orders in a Marxist Guyanese paramilitary organization. At 15, Grimes became the youngest inmate in the adult prison system after he was convicted and sentenced to 60 years; Matheny and Sue were sentenced to 66 and 53 years, respectively. Eastburn, who covered the case for the Colorado Springs Independent, offers a well-researched, fast-paced account of events. The crime is ultimately more interesting than the criminals, who shed meager insight into their own motives and psyches.”

I was once a true-crime junky, as was my Dad, and our conversations and encyclopedic knowledge about serial killers tended to freak out the rest of the family.

My fascination was always about what made people who were capable of committing such horrible acts different from the rest of us. Naturally, I never found any answers. Serial killers don’t seem to have any obvious similarities to each other. My interest in this grisly subject eventually tapered off, but since my interest in juveniles who commit murder has surfaced, so has my interest in learning what I can about them and their crimes.

Within the genre of true crime, this book is exceptionally well written and very balanced. For people looking for answers about why these juveniles did what they did, you won’t find them in this book. You won’t find them anywhere.

What none of these books talk much about, is the aftermath of violent and tragic events like these. The despair continues for all those left wondering why. In this case, the mother of the fifteen year old murder victim, who was a stripper for most of the victim’s life left her job at a Colorado Springs nude club one morning the year following the murders. She’d been drinking and taking drugs and drove the wrong way up the interstate, colliding head on with another car and killing the driver. She’s currently serving a ten year sentence for vehicular homicide. The remaining members of the victims’ family have not fared much better.

The parents of the convicted killers are devastated and their lives have been destroyed. One of the killers’ mothers (who I've met through another association) told me that almost immediately after her son was arrested, most members of her family turned their backs on her. Her marriage ended and she lost her home and her friends. I cannot fathom what it would be like to be the mother of a murder victim or the mother of a murderer.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was one I reluctantly read after so many people had recommended it. I say reluctantly because I admit I am a total ass and since so many people loved it I figured it couldn’t possibly be anything I’d like. I was wrong. I consumed this fairly long book over a weekend and was captivated the entire time.I’m not going to go into much detail about this book because based on the number of comments I had on a previous post, I have to believe I’m the last person on the internet to read it. Thank you to Karen at Beyond Understanding for letting me borrow her copy.

The Bright Forever, by Lee Martin was a recommendation from Amy at The Writers’ Group and I’m glad I listened to her. Lee Martin is the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Bright Forever; a novel, Quakertown; a story collection, The Least You Need to Know; and two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones. He has won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, a Lawrence Foundation Award, and the Glenna Luschei Prize. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he directs the creative writing program at The Ohio State University.

The story begins sometime in the 1970’s when a nine-year old girl in a small town in Indiana disappears. Martin alternates between the first person points of view of four different characters – and he’s got a couple of 3rd person omniscient chapters included -- sounds incredibly difficult, if not impossible to me, but he makes it look easy, as all true artists do. What was interesting about reading this book was that there are two especially unlikable characters; one because he’s just creepy and the other because he’s both creepy and despicable, but I found myself pitying them both. As the story unfolds and each character tells his or her part of it, the tension mounts exponentially. The story drew me in immediately and I devoured it in a couple of days. How could I not, with an invitation like this:

“I’ve never been able to tell this story and my part in it until now, but listen, I’ll say it true: a man can live with something like this only so long before he has to make it known. My name is Henry Dees, and I was a teacher then – a teacher of mathematics and a summer tutor for the children like Katie who needed such a thing. I’m an old man now, and even though more than thirty years have gone by, I still remember that summer and its secrets, and the way the heat was and how the light stretched on into evening like it would never leave. If you want to listen, you’ll have to trust me. Or close the book; go back to your lives. I warn you: this is a story as hard to hear as it is for me to tell.”

* * *

Since only four of the six books I read this month were novels, I find it a little disturbing that two of them featured characters with unnaturally icky feelings about little girls. Actually, three out of six if you count The Time Traveler's Wife. It doesn't actually go there, but it sort of forces you to worry that it might.

Note also the prominence of the color green on most of the book covers. Hmm. I must consult the cards for hidden significant meaning.

Reading in June started out with a bang, but I must confess that I haven’t gotten much reading done in the last week. I have been slogging through the second season of Twin Peaks on DVD and I realized as I began watching it that I didn’t see any of the second season when the series ran in 1990-1991. All of my nostalgia was about the first season. Well – I’m sorry to say that despite the characters and the potential for continuing a good concept show, they should have quit after the first season. Nevertheless, I bought the entire series and as I live and breathe, I will finish watching every episode, no matter how stupid it gets. I'm stubborn that way.

Scott and I did watch one especially good movie on pay per view. For a bit of American history that is both inspirational and sobering, watch The Great Debaters. If this one isn’t nominated for at least one Oscar, I’ll eat my remote.

Last night we watched Untraceable, which is described on the movie’s home page as “Silence of the Lambs for the internet age”. This thriller isn’t destined to win any awards, but the premise is one of the most original and unsettling I’ve seen in a long time.

So, summer reading? Are you reading more books now that it’s summer? Less? Light reading? Tackling the heavy stuff?

What have you been reading and/or watching?


Steve Malley said...

I just got my latest ms off to my agent. I'm giddy with the extra hours to read!

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I picked up "The Bright Forever" last month too--and had much the same reaction you did. I'm now in the midst of Meg Wolitzer's "The Position."

Melissa Marsh said...

I haven't read The Time Traveler's Wife, either. (hides)

I've been reading the memoir of the pilot who flew the WW2 plane the Memphis Belle, on which the movie with Matthew Modine is based. It's wonderful.

I will be starting Ann Patchett's The Magician's Assistant soon for our book club at work.

Charles Gramlich said...

The time traveler's wife sounds pretty interestng. I'll have to look for it. Wow, you do detailed reviews. I can't do that for the books I read and tend to do mini reviews, although it would help me remember them in the long run to do more detailed ones.

Patti said...

with all the crazy wedding stuff i am reading next to nothing. you shame me! but i am a sucker for conroy

Larramie said...

More reading, definitely, including the Advanced Readers of:
FALLING UNDER by Danielle Younge-Ullman 7/29 release

MATTERS OF FAITH by Kristy Kiernan 8/5 release

TETHERED by Amy Mackinnon 8/12 release

Five stars for all!

Lana Gramlich said...

I haven't been reading much, I must admit. Too busy with the art & business of my art career, but I'm happy about that.
I've been reading "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" lately--here & there--but early on I've realized that I was one of the effective people the author's referring to (aka; I'm not learning anything new.) At least I got it

Going Dutch said...

I'm reading John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe (love it so far) and am intrigued by a couple of those you list from your June reading...


Lisa said...

Steve, Congratulations! What a major accomplishment. You deserve to kick back next to a stack of good reads.

Judy, Do you mean you also found yourself somewhat sympathetic to the creepy characters? It was quite a story and the writing reminded me of watching a ballet dancer. It looks completely effortless -- unless you happen to know just how difficult even the seemingly simplest move is...

Melissa, Oh good! I'm relieved to know I wasn't the only one :) Sounds like you've got some good summer reading material too.

Charles, I really liked the book quite a bit. Shauna mentioned she'd read it and liked it, but would have liked more depth in the science and romance aspects. She correctly predicted that since I don't read much (if any) sci-fi or romance that it would be about right for me. I wonder if she can predict whether or not this one would be up your alley or not...

I've sort of gotten more detailed with the reviews over time, although not as detailed as it might seem. These are kind of long, but a lot of the content here is quoted from the books or from other reviews. It does help me to remember the books better though. I'm almost more interested at times in remembering why I chose a particular book, even though it really has nothing to do with whether I liked it or not.

Patti, I'm a little spoiled since I have neither kids, nor a major event to contend with, so I get a little more reading time than most people do.

Larramie, Excellent! You've been really fortunate to get so many high quality reads in a row. I will be looking forward to your reviews, which are always top notch. I'm also looking forward to getting my TETHERED ARE :)

Lana, It sounds like now is definitely the time to focus on the business of art for Lana! I can't wait to see a photo of your beautiful panel once it's installed in the park.

Leslie, So glad you like it -- I knew you would!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Some of my favorite writers in The Eleventh Draft. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Reading a draft of my daughter's next novel BURY ME DEAD. Also ROBBIE'S WIFE by Russell Hill.

debra said...

I've been incredibly busy at our studio. I try to read at night, with varying levels of success. On my nightstand: War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges---very powerful--I heard him on NPR; The End of America (Naomi Wolf), The Secret Life of Bees; and a few more. I will be going to Blue Mountain Lake (in th Adirondacks) next week. I am looking forward to lazy afternoons curled up with a book.

Shauna Roberts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for the book reviews. I think I may try out The Eleventh Draft. Sounds as if it may have some interesting insights in it.

I'm not sure whether Charles would like Time Traveler's Wife or not. I suspect he might find it interesting as an example of what results when a non-spec fic writer writes spec fic. That book and Mary Somebody's The Sparrow (another sf novel by a non-sf writer) to me felt unbalanced, as if the important parts of the story were underemphasized and too much space was spent on the wrong things.

I've just started reading The Beethoven Factor: The New Psychology of Hardiness, Happiness, Healing, and Hope
by Paul Pearsall. Supposedly it will discuss how some people thrive in spite of disasters that lay others low and how to become a thriver.

Usman said...

Hi Lisa,

I have been meaning to read The Time Traveller's Wife for some time now.
But the lines you included from The Bright Forever and the multiple narratives it takes, makes me want to read it today. I love these books, where an author takes a leap of faith with his writing and succeeds, as you say.

Lisa said...

Grrrr! Blogger ate my comments to everyone.

Patti, I didn't know your daughter was an author! What's her name?

THE ELEVENTH DRAFT is a good one to check out of the library, since it was published in 1999 and there shouldn't be a waiting list.

Debra, I think you'll like THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. The other books sound like good ones.

And hey, you'll be at a lake in the Adirondacks and I'll be at a lake in the Rockies. How about that?

Shauna, Again, THE ELEVENTH DRAFT is a good library book. I liked it, but I probably won't read it again.

It's funny, but when I read a book with spec-fic/sci-fi elements, I'm pretty willing to suspend my disbelief about nearly anything.

Usman, I'm pretty sure you'd like both books. They both do amazing things with structure -- sort of the literary equivalent of juggling chainsaws :)

Sustenance Scout said...

Wow, lots to add to the TBR list from your recent posts and these comments. I finally got a chance to skim your Wm Hammett interview and am looking forward to giving it a more thorough read. Lots of great insights there! Thanks for introducing another terrific author. As for recent reading I've been switching back and forth between the complete short stories of Hemingway and selected short stories of Faulkner and the latter is knocking my socks off! K.

The Writers' Group said...

Lee Martin's THE BRIGHT FOREVER is genius. IT was a finalist for the Pulitzer, breaks every writing rule, and makes some new ones.

The moment I finished reading it, I emailed him to gush. He was so kind and generous in his reply. I like it when good people are heard.

Billy said...

You're right--Twin Peaks really became absurd the second season. But the first season was terrific. The director, of course, is known for going "over the top" and his eccentricity. (David Lynch?) When it comes to offbeat, I thought Northern Exposure was great too until Joel left the show.

Billy said...

You have an award waiting on my site, Lisa.

Lisa said...

Karen, The interview was a lot of fun to do and Billy is just great. I've been reading short stories lately too. I'm part way through the new Tobias Wolff collection, OUR STORY BEGINS and I'm going to have to set it aside and read Gary Schanbacher's MIGRATION PATTERNS, since it's one of the books we'll be discussing at Grand Lake.

Amy, I can't tell you how glad I am that you recommended THE BRIGHT FOREVER. It really was amazing.

Billy, It's funny, I felt a certain similar feel between Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure too. They both had isolated communities, quirky, likable characters and just a little bit of magic. I really think the first season was great and then David Lynch was not as involved in the second season and they seemed to have directors and writers rotating in and out. The other thing I learned through the DVD special features was that since the network didn't anticipate the show being picked up beyond the first few episodes, they insisted it be a "closed" ending, meaning, they had to reveal who killed Laura Palmer. If they'd been able to leave that question open indefinitely, they wouldn't have had to go off on so many kooky tangents.

And thank you for the award!

Riss said...

I still haven't seen the second season of Twin Peaks. And, I don't know who the killer is. I'm curious. I've been so good...I haven't even watched Fire Walk With Me. And yes...David Lynch is notoriously insane though I did like Mulholland (spelling?) Drive. Anyway...I also haven't been reading much. I've been making lots of random art stuff though, which is a good thing. I also haven't read The Time Travellers Wife. So that makes at least five of us (c:

I'm rereading Anansi Boys, if that counts and I'm going to be scavaging for a good, cheap book to read on the plane so I can donate it or hand it off to some random person. Egads, I leave in 10 days! (c:

Jennifer said...

I'm reading a lot more this summer--but a lot slower than I've read in a long time. I'm taking a lot of notes and really thinking about what I'm reading.

I'm so glad you enjoyed Rose's Garden! Brown is such a master at the vivid and continuous dream. I agree with your comment about pacing; the characterization and the prose grabbed me so quickly that I didn't really notice how slow it was at the beginning. I actually started re-reading it when I sent it to you.

I love your review posts, Lisa--I always walk away with at least one more book I'm dying to read. I'm going to get
The Bright Forever
as soon as I'm done with my current batch of books. And The Eleventh Draft sounds really interesting.

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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