Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ordinary Heros

The only Scott Turow book I'd read previously was Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty, his 2003 explanation of how and why he changed his mind about killing prisoners. Turow now thinks it's wrong. It is a convincing argument made by someone who has actually been involved in capital cases, and I recommend it to anyone who wonders if state judicial, murder is ever justified.

Ordinary Heroes is Turow's 2005 novel set mainly in WWII. It has an interesting framing device to allow two narrators, Stewart Dubinsky, and his father, David Dubin. Stewart, in his 50s, divorced, a retired journalist, discovers in his dead father's papers a letter written aboard a troop ship heading toward Europe in March 1944. It is a love letter written to a fiance Stewart has never heard of--not his mother. In trying to learn more about his father's life, Stewart discovers that his father, an Army lawyer, was court martialed and subsequently exonerated. It sets Stewart on a quest to learn exactly what happened.

Through an entirely believable chain of circumstances, Stewart comes into possession of a memoir his father had written about his experiences after he landed in Europe, was assigned to the JAG office of the 3rd Army, and what led to his court martial.

I found the book compelling. Both the present-day account of Stewart trying to understand his father's life and his father's WWII account of Army law, war, combat, and much more. A number of things ring absolutely true: the noise of combat. I've never seen a movie or TV show that convincingly conveyed the sound of guns, and David Dubin's memoir talks about the incredible noise.

I also believe the book conveys more accurately the reality of the war. At one point we Americans execute four German prisoners. In one sense, it's justified, they deserve it; in another, it violates the Geneva Conventions; and in yet another, it is not something WWII movies and comic books ever suggested was possible. I suspect it happened more often than we would like to think.

Until the very end, I had no idea where the book was going. I knew that Stewart's father was going to live because, after all, he returned with a war bride to sire Stewart and his sister. But his story turns out to be fascinating.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Changeling

I read Joy Williams' The Changeling because it was recently republished (recently being May 2008) 30 years after it originally appeared. I thought that any book with a following so loyal a publisher was willing to take a chance with a new edition 30 years on had to offer something special.

The new edition has a preface by Rick Moody who tries to explain what happened to the book when it was first published and to justify the republication. Williams had been a National Book Award finalist for her first novel in 1972, so she was no dilettante when The Changling was published in 1978. However, as the New York Times reported with the new edition, Anatole Broyard's review of the original publication "found nothing to like about The Changeling, a book about a young, heavy-drinking woman named Pearl. In his first sentence, he called it 'startlingly bad'; he wrote that its story was 'an arbitrary muddle'; and he wrote that the children in it were 'as artificially tiresome as any I have ever met in literature.'" The case has been made that the review killed the book.

Nevertheless, it lived on. Here are some quotes from fans: "Started off amazing, got a bit iffy, then transformed itself into a perpetual surprise machine..." "Reading this is like stepping into someone else's fever dream - it's hot, it's menacing, but it ends up working by its own strange logic. A very weird book that I only half got but Williams' prose is so wonderfully transporting and visionary that I was willing to let her get away with a lot...." "Amazing book. Stark, surprising language. An unusual romp through the mythological intricacies of the imagination...."

I am afraid I vote with
Broyard. The main character, Pearl, is a drunk and, except for one short section, we see the story through Pearl's point of view. Because she's a drunk, and because we never get outside her head long enough to test her perceptions, we never know what's "true" and what's her fever dream. Is the child that survives a plane crash with her really hers or has he been switched? Who knows? Who can tell? And finally, who cares? At the end, Pearl is raped by her dead husband's brother, something she finds physically enjoyable but mentally/emotionally repugnant. Or maybe it's the other way around. Who knows? Pearl doesn't and there's not enough for the reader to know. Or, in my case, care.

When I finished, I felt that Williams had created an interesting verbal object that says nothing about people, the world, life...anything. It is not a book for me.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Shameless bragging

As a hobby, I continue to study Japanese. While I am comfortable speaking Japanese on topics a tourist needs to cover, I cannot read a Japanese newspaper or a magazine. I am therefore on an endless quest to memorize the kanji, and slowly, slowly, slowly build my vocabulary. (The main character in my novel Getting Oriented is much more fluent than I am.) Because reading is such a struggle, I was delighted when I discovered that I could read without help the following in a letter I received from a Japanese friend a few days ago:


I believe it's the longest string of characters I've ever been able to read by myself. (Japanese conversation partners have always had to help me in the past.) It means "National History Museum" or "Museum of National History," and my friend was telling me that her husband is now a volunteer guide there. An ordinary sentence but it gave me a frisson of excitement.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


David Rhodes published three well-received novels in the early 1970s. In 1977 he was in a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Driftless is his first published novel in 30 years. I found it extraordinary for reasons I will try to convey.

The title refers to a region in southwestern Wisconsin that last glacier did not reach. Consequently, the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand, and silt—drift—are missing. The book is set in this Driftless Region, in and around the village of Words, a town so small small that state maps no longer show it.

I will not attempt to summarize the story because the book contains many stories. It is not, however, a book of linked short stories. Driftless has perhaps a dozen main characters, some connected by blood, some connected socially (it's a small town after all). Not everyone knows every else personally, although almost everyone knows July Montgomery, who might be called the protagonist except that his actions are fairly low key. Some of the narrative threads are connected, but not all. We see characters grow and change in believable ways as their actions touch one another.

I had a sense of Rhodes listening carefully to everything he heard for the last 30 years, thinking about it, and shaping it. The writing is often lovely: "It was cooler here, and she felt her body relax as she threaded through the calligraphy of underbrush." "Olivia lay in her dark room without sleeping. Outside the window she could see a thin sliver of moon nailed against the sky." Yet the writing does not become so lovely that it distracts from the narrative motion.

I like the book because it is about people I do not often read about: farmers, handymen, a small-town preacher (whose epiphany is one of the high points of the book), and more. None of them are professional people—unless you consider farming a profession—nor, for the most part, are they highly educated. They have to contend with weather, wildlife, broken machinery, corporate corruption, medical emergencies, accidental death, their own prejudices, and more.

As a side issue, I was interested to see that Driftless was published by Milkweed Editions, a non-profit, independent literary publisher. I don't know if Rhodes tried to sell the manuscript to a commercial publisher (Harper & Row published his last book), and I don't know what kind of advance or royalty contract he might have, but I suspect both are modest. Milkweed, after all, has to stay in business. I can only hope that the word spreads and that this interesting portrait of contemporary midwestern rural life finds the large and enthusiastic audience it deserves.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Coldest Winter Ever

While I work on new fiction, I have been reading a lot of other people's fiction and, because I have not posted to this blog for months but do read about a book a week, and because I want to clarify my thoughts about the books I'm reading, I plan to spend the next several months writing about other people's fiction, starting with Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever.

I came to it because students in a prison fiction writing class talked about urban fiction as a genre and recommended it highly. The book has been out since 1999, so I am coming to it late. But it's still in print and the 2006 paperback edition I bought announced there are a million copies in print. With all that, I'd never heard of it. A

If one of the reasons to read fiction is to learn about other lives and other cultures, I can unequivocally recommend The Coldest Winter Ever. The protagonist, Winter Santiaga who tells her own story, is a 17-year-old woman of color who is the daughter of a wealthy Brooklyn drug-dealing family. She worships her father, has three younger sisters (Porsche, Lexus, and Mercedes, which says something about the family's values), is sexy and smart, if contemptuous of school. " policy was to go to school just enough so the authorities wouldn't kick me out. If I had a new outfit to show off or some new jewels I knew I'd get sweated for, fine, but I wasn't gonna report to school every day like it was some type of job when they weren't even paying me for it. School was like a hustle. Teachers wanted me to come to school so they could get paid to control me. What do I get out of the deal?"

When Winter's father is arrested; his entire drug-dealing organization rolled up; the house, cars, jewels, and other property confiscated; her mother picked up; and her sisters taken by Child Protective Services, Winter is—for a while at least—on her own. She makes one questionable decision after another, running on pure appetite and rationalization. I suspect the book would be very irritating if Winter were an adult—how could she be so stupid?—but as an adolescent I was willing to follow her from one crisis to another. What is she going to do next?

Because I know so little about the world that Sister Souljah portrays, I believed these characters in these situations would speak and act in the way they do. Souljah includes herself as a character in the book, a do-gooder that Winter tries to use and for whom she has little patience: "On the radio, suddenly Sister Souljah started talking shit, her coarse voice overpowering the music. 'The number one group of people dying from AIDS is young black women.' I popped in a tape to shut her down before she started gettin' on my damn nerves."

Winter is a force of nature. I'm not sure that she has learned anything socially useful by the end of the book. But the reader has, I believed, learned much about the assumptions, attitudes, and lives of men and women in our ghettos.