Kurt Vonnegut

Here is a link to a recent interview with Kurt Vonnegut.


Good Faith

I haven’t been keeping you up on my 100 novels reading list: Last week I finished Good Faith by Jane Smiley. I had difficulty getting into this novel, perhaps because I knew so much about its composition. Smiley discusses its composition in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.  It was a difficult novel for her to write. She was in the midst of its compostion during 9/11 and after that harrowing day, had a true bout of writer’s block. But its subject matter was just as hard to take on: The novel is set in the 1980s and deals with the beginnings of that era’s excesses. I’ll let her summarize it:

Joe, about forty, is a small-town real eastate agent in a scenic region; he is newly divorced but not generally happy and not filled with high aspiriations. At the beginning of the novel, two things happen, apparently independently of one another– a stranger (Marcus) comes to town full of big plans; and an old friend of Joe’s (Felicity), the daughter of his partner and married, entices him into having a clandestine affair….Joe allows himself to be seduced by both of them, with consequences that are, to say the least, surprising to him ….

I think what made the read difficult for me, at first, was Smiley’s choice of using Joe as the first-person narrator, because Joe becomes a pigeon in Marcus’ real estate scam and it takes a while, or did for me, to sort out what’s going on. Most of that was because of unfamiliarity with the territory of real estate.

But once I caught on, and also realized that Joe hadn’t (for irony’s sake) I could see Joe’s fall. And he falls hard, and takes a lot of his town with him.  But Smiley gives Joe a reprieve. He loses a lot of things, loses friends, money, possessions, but gains grace.

To some extent the grace is offered in the same way that it’s finally offered to Job in the Old Testament–in an almost Zen-like moment of acceptance, with no real explanation. Joe just takes his lumps and sees that things could’ve been much worse. Perhaps more people could’ve gotten hurt, or lost. What’s left becomes what’s important.

I suspect Joe will go on trying to maintain this equilibrium. It’s a subtle comedy of justice that Smiley’s written.

My 10th novel on the list is also by Smiley–her campus comedy Moo! It was the first of Smiley’s books I’ve read and I’m enjoying the second read so far as well.

The more I read Smiley, the more I like her. She’s truly talentted with the comic novel, as Good Faith demonstrates. Eventually, I’ll have to give her tragedy A Thousand Acres another try. 



Contest Winner (X-posted on MySpace)

This afternoon I had my first public reading of piece I entered in a local literature, music and arts contest.  My essay about my mother’s death in November 2005 won the Barclay Arts Dr. Harry Wilmer award for nonfiction–biography. Dr. Wilmer was a local psychiatrist, a pioneer of group therapy.

Here is the original unedited version from an earlier version of my blog:

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” The opening lines of Albert Camus’ The Stranger have been hovering in my head since Friday, the day my own mother died–in a nursing home, as does Meursalt’s mother. I don’t want to sound too pretentious, too literary when I say lines from literature come to mind when I learned my mom had died. Actually, Friday morning, when my sister called to tell me, she said, “Mom passed.” That’s how I heard it. That euphemism for finality, implying this death was a temporary thing, not an end, but a movement, a shift from the physcical into the spiritual, an afterlife. These days I’m agnostic–I can’t make up my mind about God, much less an afterlife, although all throughout this weekend, even at the end of the funeral as I stood around talking to cousins I knew and to distant relatives I didn’t know, I kept imagining Mom and Dad (though divorced almost ten years) floating somewhere in the clouds, together, all the past forgiven, Dad foregoing the soul of his second wife to reunite with his first. Happiness would come to them, though it had stopped here on Earth a decade ago. Or, maybe, several decades ago; I can’t be sure.

“Mom passed.” Those words are less blunt than Monsieur Meursalt’s. “Died” is a journalist’s word, and Camus was a journalist; I work in journalism. It’s definite, certain–“Mom died,” final, no more. Supposedly objective and not surrounded by connotations, at least as the journalist uses it, “died” means what it says, says what it means: there is no possibility of an afterlife, no speculation, no nonsensical bullshit; such things are for clergy and philosophers; journalists are neither, they have no opinions either way. Mothers and fathers cannot reunite and forgive and forget. That’s sentimental, and something you cannot prove. But, today, despite my agnosticism, I want to imagine my mother happy and my father happy, that maybe they saw each other in some after-realm, somewhere–maybe on some spiritual facsimile of the train where they met–Mom is able to walk without pain, with no Parkinson’s tremor in her arm; and Dad is able to talk without pain, no cancerous white blood cells overloading his body. I can’t be sure. Only, for now, it’s what I want.