Archives : December 2010

Book Review: Big Machine

December 31, 2010 

In an interview published in Vanity Fair, Victor LaValle talked about his intentions when writing Big Machine:

“I wanted to write a horror novel. My editor would hate for me to say that, but I’m doing by best to say that as much as possible. I wanted to write a horror novel—I love horror writing—but in the broadest sense of the term. To me, Sophie’s Choice is a horror novel, and pretty much all of Flannery O’Connor is horror: something that creates a feeling in the reader. A lot of supposed horror novels don’t succeed in doing that because they’re just gory or silly. And a lot of literary novels don’t succeed in doing that because they’re boring. So I thought if I could combine the best of the two, maybe I’d get somewhere interesting. Have the literary part—the depth of character and wrestling with profound ideas. And the horror side: pushing readers to feel something powerful and even uncomfortable, but also to entertain them. And if I could combine all that I thought I could have a bad ass book.”

And bad ass is exactly what Big Machine is. Also highly original, wildly entertaining and risky (in the best sense of the word).

Ricky Rice, a middle-aged black man and recovering junkie, is cleaning bathrooms in an upstate New York bus station when he receives a mysterious envelope. Inside is a one-way ticket to Burlington, Vermont and a note: “You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it.” Despite his misgivings — “What kind of black man accepts an unsigned invitation to the whitest state there is?” he wonders — a few days later Ricky finds himself at the Washburn Library, an unusual research center of sorts in the remote woods of Vermont.

There he meets eight others, former petty criminals, prostitutes and drug addicts, all of whom received a cryptic note and a one-way bus ticket like himself. Their host, a shadowy figure known as the Dean, informs them that they are the newest class of Unlikely Scholars, a band of paranormal investigators charged with scouring the nation’s newspapers in search of anything that could be evidence of a higher being they call the Voice.

If Ricky’s time at the Library feels a bit stagnant, be patient. The action really picks up when the Dean sends Ricky and another Unlikely Scholar, Adele Henry, to the San Francisco Bay area in pursuit of Solomon Clay, a breakaway from the Washburn group who is organizing his own army of indigent suicide bombers. At this point, we learn in flashbacks of Ricky’s tragic childhood in a cult led by three sisters known as the Washerwomen, as well as Adele’s harrowing encounter with a serial killer.

In his race to stop Solomon Clay, Ricky has a strange and fateful encounter in the sewers with a hybrid angel-devil monster, but it is clear that the real monsters of the novel are faith and religion. “Doubt is the big machine,” one of the Washerwomen says to young Ricky. “It grinds up the delusions of men and women.”

In Big Machine not only has LaValle invented his own extraordinary blend of literary and genre fiction, he has also produced a wickedly funny and strangely optimistic book that is well worth the read.

Author Interview: Tina May Hall

December 17, 2010 

Tina May Hall is the author of The Physics of Imaginary Objects, winner of the 2010 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and, in my opinion, one of the most under-rated books of the year. The stories in this collection are beautifully written, lyrical and evocative but tinged with darkness and foreboding. Some test the line between reality and fantasy, while others play with language and negative space. So many of Hall’s sentences are perfect gems, I often found myself saying them out loud to savor their cadence and energy. Hall’s stories have appeared in the Collagist, Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West, minnesota review and descant, among others. She lives in upstate New York with her family and teaches English at Hamilton College.

Your writing is so lyrical and evocative, it often made me feel as if I was reading poetry. In fact, some of the stories in your collection — “There Is a Factory in Sierra Vista Where Jesus Is Resurrected Every Hour in Hot Plastic and the Stench of Chicken,” for example — are written like lines in a poem. Other stories, such as “Visitations” take on a more traditional plot-driven form. Do you have a background in poetry? Were you aware of straddling that line between plot and lyricism when you were writing the stories? How did you decide how to strike the balance?

I did take a lot of poetry workshops, even though it was evident fairly early on that I would never make a good poet.  What I am instead is an envious fiction writer—I envy poets their forms and their white space.  So whenever I can, I borrow these things and mess with them.  It is fun to test the capabilities of the sentence.  And I like to see what the page can afford in a short story.  So, it is a lovely compliment to have the work compared to poetry, though I am quite solidly in the fiction camp.

The test for me of when a story has beautiful sentences in it is if I feel the need to repeat them out loud. That happened to me so many times when reading The Physics of Imaginary Objects. What importance did you give to individual sentences when writing the book in comparison to the other components of a story such as character, plot, point of view?

I gave the sentences almost equal importance.  Several of the stories move through image and rhythm rather than narrative arc or change in character.  I always read everything aloud as I am revising and if something chimes oddly, I’ll spend long stretches of time trying to fix the syllables or the sounds so that it comes out correctly.  It is a very indulgent way of writing.  So it’s great that you say the test for you is a compulsion to read the sentence aloud; it is really fantastic to think of a reader expressing pleasure in this way.

How do you know when a sentence has come out correctly? I think for many writers there is the temptation to keep fiddling and fiddling. How do you know when to stop?

Well, I’m definitely a fiddler.  I have a ridiculously slow revision process where I am happy to play with sentences over the course of years.  Eventually I get to a place where it feels right enough.  Often it is just reading it aloud and seeing if it sounds okay—does the sentence sound full/round (if that makes sense)?  Does it work with the rhythm of the sentences around it?  Is it not too precious but also not too bland?  A really good sentence will have a little frission of energy around it, but of course every sentence can’t be like that or it would be excruciating for a reader—that’s where the issue of rhythm and playing with flatness comes in.

Two of the stories in the collection are based on fragments from scientific texts. “Erratum: Insert ‘R’ in ‘Transgressors’ is based on fragments from the minutes of the American Microscopical Society, and “In Your Endeavors, You May Feel My Ghostly Presence,”is based on fragments from a book by the 19th century physicist John Tyndall.  What appealed to you about using scientific texts in general and those pieces in particular? Are the stories built solely out of the scientific texts, or did you add something of your own to them as well?

The stories are built entirely out of fragments from the old texts, though of course I’ve played with repetition and cutting and splicing of phrases.  I liked the constraint of a found piece and I am always really drawn to scientific writing.  Scientific terminology and the “meter,” for lack of a better word, of scientific prose just delights me.  It is great fun to sit on the floor of the library, reading an old dusty volume of some turn-of-the-century scientific proceedings and start imagining a murder mystery or a love story percolating underneath.

“Skinny Girls’ Constitution and Bylaws” is my favorite story. I love the lyricism combined with the visceral images of bones and blood and flesh. How did the idea for that story come to you? How did it evolve into the finished product?

That story is a bit of an exception for me in that the title came first.  Usually, the title is the last thing to come, and I normally cycle through multiple titles before I land on one I like.  But for that story, the title struck me one day and I thought it was funny (though I know many people read that story as very grim), so I went with it.  The story just grew and grew over the space of about 18 months.  Eventually the mini-biographies of the girls were added, and then they took over!

I love the cover of your book and it seems perfectly suited to the feelings your writing engenders — quiet, ethereal beauty but with something dark and mysterious around the edges. Did you have a hand in designing it?

I can claim very little credit for the cover of the book.  Pitt Press ran a few ideas by me and this one was definitely my favorite.  I, too, love how eerie that photo is, how stark it is but also how complicated it becomes when you really look at it and try to figure out what you are seeing.  The designer, Rick Landesberg, actually talks a bit about the process of designing this cover at a post on book covers of 2010 at the Huffington Post.

What’s your writing routine like? Any particular writing quirks?

Ever since having a child, my writing routine is to be as productive as possible in the time afforded to me.  For instance, I used to write at home and take lots of showers between sentences and wander around and look out the window and think dreamy thoughts about the trash cans the wind had blown into the street.  But now, I’ve gotten much more ruthless.  When I have time to write, I put my fingers on the keyboard and force myself to get to work.

Do you think the new constraints on your time have changed your writing at all? Are the changes for the better or worse, or just different?

I think the changes have made my writing looser in earlier drafts—draftier, if you like.  I used to work very much on a sentence by sentence level through the first draft, fine tuning sentences as I went.  Now I am a little more generous with myself in allowing some very clumsy sentences to stand as placeholders until a future draft so that I can get more material down on the page at a time.  I don’t necessarily think this is a better or worse way of working.  And it may have nothing to do with the constraints on my time, but merely be a function of maturing as a writer.  I will say that the source of my time constraints—my almost-four-year-old son—has been the best and most delightful corrective to taking myself or my writing too seriously.  Kids are fantastic in their ability for sheer play, with language, with their bodies, with whatever happens to be in their path—it has been a great eye-opener for me in terms of process.

Can you say anything about what are you working on now?

For a few years now, I’ve been working on a novel about a writer of encyclopedia entries who gets stuck on the Arctic.  The plot goes back and forth between her and the point of view of a wife of a famous Victorian Arctic explorer, so I’ve gotten to do lots of wonderful research into the strange lives of those explorers.  I readily admit that I’ve gotten bogged down in old maps and diaries and have spent too much time when I should have been writing poring over the lists of things they packed into the ships and what was found on their bodies when they were exhumed decades later, but it has been so entertaining that I don’t regret it.

Sounds fascinating! I know what you mean about research. I think I often pick story plots based on something I’ve heard and want to learn more about. But I sometimes find that if you over-research, it places constraints on your imagination, like the world becomes too real and there is nothing left for you to invent. Has that happened to you? How have you been able to strike a balance between historical details and the imaginary world you are creating?

I’m not sure I have struck a balance, yet.  I know in these first drafts, I have to be very firm about remembering this is a work of fiction, of fantasy, in a way.  And that accuracy isn’t my intention.  The compulsion to be accurate is pretty hard to resist though!  It helps to keep in mind wonderful writers like Lily Tuck (The News from Paraguay) and Carole Maso (Beauty Is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo) and Kathryn Davis (Versailles) who have all grappled with this problem in really inventive and playful ways.

We’re coming up on the end of the year so I have to ask: what are some of your favorite books that you read this year?

I absolutely loved Jayne Anne Phillips latest novel, Lark and Termite.  I’m a fan of hers and I think this book really brings together her strengths in a stunning way.  I’m also reading Matt Bell’s book How They Were Found and am just blown away by the range and virtuosity of it.

2011′s Highly Anticipated Reads

December 14, 2010 

There’s still so many books from 2010 that I haven’t had a chance to read yet, among them voluminous hardcovers like The Instructions and To the End of the Land that were never going to fit in my luggage to Buenos Aires. But given the book addict that I am, there’s already quite a few books being published next year that I am going to run out and buy as soon as I get back to New York. Here’s a few of my most highly anticipated releases:

1. Amy Sackville, The Still Point, available Jan. 1

Sackville won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize –awarded to the best work of literature by a UK or Commonwealth writer under the age of 35 — for The Still Point, her debut novel. According to the judges, “It has a huge imaginative scope. It tells its story in unexpected, subtle ways and her use of language took our breath away. She is a writer of seemingly limitless promise and, amid some tough competition, a thoroughly deserving winner.”

From The Guardian:

Edward Mackley sets out for the North Pole in late 1899 with his team and the fatalistically named vessel, the Persephone, leaving behind new bride Emily. Spirited and passionate, Emily remains closeted in the family home with Edward’s brother and his uncongenial wife, awaiting Edward’s increasingly unlikely return. When his blackened, preserved body and surviving effects are dug up 60 years later, Emily finally relinquishes life. Her great-great niece Julia, an archivist, eventually inherits the house, a shrine to Edward’s memory. Throughout one hot summer day, Julia reassesses herself in relation to this legacy, her uneasy marriage and misconceptions about romantic love. The two worlds of ice and heat, a century apart, are carefully balanced by the exquisitely restrained prose.

2. Karen Russell, Swamplandia, available Feb. 1

After meeting this clan of Florida alligator wrestlers in the story “Ava Wrestles the Alligators” from Russell’s collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, who wouldn’t want to read more?

From Publisher’s Weekly:

We return to Swamplandia!, the once-thriving Florida tourist attraction where the Bigtree clan–Ava, Ossie, Kiwi, and the Chief–wrestles alligators. After the death of mother Hilola–the park’s star alligator wrestler–Ava, the youngest Bigtree, takes her place in the spotlight while her sister, Ossie, elopes with a ghostly man named Louis Thanksgiving, and brother Kiwi winds up sweeping floors at Swamplandia!’s competition. Worst of all is the disappearance of the Chief, spurring Ava to embark upon a rescue mission that will take her from the Gulf of Mexico to the gates of hell, occasionally assisted by an unlikely extended family that includes the geriatric Grandpa Sawtooth, the Bird Man, and a tiny red alligator with the potential to save the park.

3. Justin Taylor, The Gospel of Anarchy, available Feb. 8

Like Russell, Taylor’s novel expands upon some of the characters from a successful story collection, in this case the disaffected South Florida anarchist youth from Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever.

From Harper Collins:

Justin Taylor’s mesmerizing debut novel explores the eccentricities, insights, and unexpected grace found in a motley crew of off-beat anarchists, and their quest to achieve utopia in a crumbling Florida commune.

4. Sarah Braunstein, The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, available Feb. 28

Braunstein was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, but what really has me hooked is the blurb from Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, whose book Madeleine Is Sleeping is one of my all-time favorites.

From W.W. Norton:

In New York City, a girl called Leonora vanishes without a trace. Years earlier and miles upstate, Goldie, a wild, negligent mother, searches for a man to help raise her precocious son, Paul, who later discovers that the only way to save his soul is to run away. As the narrative moves back and forth in time, we find deeper interconnections between these stories and growing clues about Leonora—this missing girl whose face looks out from telephone poles and billboards—whom one character will give anything to save.

5. Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife, available March 8

Obreht is another of NBA’s 5 under 35. We all got a taste of what’s to come in her debut novel from the brilliant excerpt published in The New Yorker last year.

From Random House:

In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself. But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. After telling her grandmother that he was on his way to meet Natalia, he instead set off for a ramshackle settlement none of their family had ever heard of and died there alone. A famed physician, her grandfather must have known that he was too ill to travel. Why he left home becomes a riddle Natalia is compelled to unravel.

6. Lydia Millet, The Fires Beneath the Sea, available May 1

This is a young adult book but after reading Millet’s story collection Love in Infant Monkeys, I would follow her anywhere. Plus it takes place in Cape Cod, a rich source of my own childhood memories.

From Small Beer Press:

Cara’s mother has disappeared. Her father isn’t talking about it. Her big brother Max is hiding behind his iPod, and her genius little brother Jackson is busy studying the creatures he collects from the beach. But when a watery specter begins to haunt the family’s Cape Cod home, Cara and her brothers realize that their scientist mother may not be who they thought she was—and that the world has much stranger, much older inhabitants than they had imagined. With help from Cara’s best friend Hayley, the three embark on a quest that will lead them from the Cape’s hidden, ancient places to a shipwreck at the bottom of the sea. They’re soon on the front lines of an ancient battle between good and evil, with the terrifying “pouring man” close on their heels.

7. Rebecca Makkai, The Borrower, available June 9

I’ve really been enjoying Makkai’s short stories (read her story “Wedding Night” online here) so I have high hopes for this novel.

From Viking:

Lucy Hull, a twenty-six-year-old children’s librarian in the town of Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favourite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, runs away to the library. Desperate to undo the brainwashing of celebrity Pastor Bob’s weekly anti-gay classes forced on him by his evangelical parents, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian, What follows is a journey that takes the pair from Missouri to Vermont, throwing ferrets and inconvenient boyfriends in their path and a man on their tail. The question Lucy must face in the end is whether her impulse to save a child from his own parents has done more harm than good.

Book Review: The Feast of the Goat

December 08, 2010 

Earlier this year Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa was named the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first time a Spanish-language author has won the price since Mexico’s Octavio Paz in 1990. When I read that the prize committee had praised Llosa “for his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat,” I immediately recollected The Feast of the Goat, a novel about the struggle against absolute power, if ever there was one.

Set on the tiny island nation of the Dominican Republic during the last days of the 32-year reign of terror of General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the first two-thirds of the book is told through three overlapping narratives: the Goat himself on the day of his assassination; the small group of anti-Trujillistas who lie in wait for him on a deserted stretch of highway; and Urania Cabral, daughter of one of Trujillo’s disgraced ministers who sacrifices his own child in a desperate attempt to get back into the dictator’s inner circle.

Trujillo is a ruthless despot who rules by violence, corruption and terror. In this perverse system, “[t]he worst thing that can happen to a Dominican is to be intelligent or competent . . . Because sooner or later Trujillo will call on him to serve the regime, or his person, and when he calls, one is not permitted to say no.”

But in May 1961 his iron grip on the nation is weakening. The Catholic Church has begun to denounce his regime, his formerly friendly relations with the United States have soured after he tried to engineer the assassination of the reformist president of Venezuela, and even the few loyalists that remain think the Chief went too far when he ordered the murder of the Butterflies, three sisters active in the clandestine struggle against the regime.

Now in his seventies, Trujillo is also failing physically. A fastidious man with an intense need to flaunt his sexual prowess with all the prettiest women on the island, including his ministers’ wives and daughters, he cannot abide the degeneration of his body: “A lashing rage shook him. He could dominate men, bring three million Dominicans to their knees, but he could not control his bladder.”

Yet it is in the aftermath of Trujillo’s assassination, through the machinations of those left to fill the power vacuum, that Llosa shows himself to be a true master of the art of the political novel. Trujillo’s playboy son Ramfis returns from playing polo in Paris to hunt down and viciously torture all those suspected of involvement in his father’s death. (Warning for the faint of heart: Llosa spares no detail when it comes to the psychotic bloodbath Ramfis and his cohorts inflict on the conspirators and their family members.)

At the other end of the spectrum is Joaquín Balaguer, the diminutive man of letters and figurehead president who stayed in Trujillo’s favor for so long by never losing his composure or betraying his true thoughts. Balaguer’s behind the scenes manipulation of the greed and fear rampant among Trujillo’s inner circle assures him political dominance. In a matter of months, he convinces the more extreme factions of Trujillo’s money-grubbing clan to go into exile, repairs relations with the United States, and changes the name of the capital city back to Santo Domingo. Even Johnny Abbes, the former head of the secret police whose caliés (henchmen) terrorized the island in their infamous black Volkswagons, is convinced to take a diplomatic post abroad and eventually meets his death at the hands of another of Latin America’s crazed dictators, “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

I am not versed enough in Latin American history to know if Trujillo’s assassination and its aftermath went down exactly the way that Llosa tells it in The Feast of the Goat. I suspect not. But, immersed in Llosa’s hyper-realist and psychologically astute prose, it is enough for me that it absolutely could have happened that way.

2010′s Greatest Hits in Reading

December 06, 2010 

We’re quickly approaching the end of the year and it seems like a new “Best of 2010 Books” list is being released every day. Take these lists for what they’re worth. They are highly subjective, of course, and there’s a lot of great books published this year that, for whatever reason, haven’t got the attention they deserve (The Physics of Imaginary Objects by Tina May Hall, for example). Nevertheless, “best of” lists can be helpful starting places if you’re looking for book recommendations or perhaps a holiday gift for that friend or family member who’s always so hard to shop for. So here’s a few lists you might consider checking out:

If “best of” lists are not your thing, The Millions does a wonderful series — The Year in Reading — in which writers and editors discuss, of all the books they read in 2010, the one(s) that meant the most to them (regardless of publication date).

Bookforum and the Guardian also have authors discussing the books they loved reading this year.

If you need to buy a gift for a lover of world literature, you might want to check out the holiday gift guide at Salonica.

Greenpoint’s independent bookstore, Word, also has a great gift guide, divided into useful categories such as “For the Literati,” “For Kids,” and “For the Foodies.”

Finally, if you haven’t found what you are looking for here, Largehearted Boy has undertaken the Herculian task of aggregating every 2010 “best of” list he can find. If you can’t find it here, it doesn’t exist.