prose on prose

Books bought:

  • Reading Like A Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose

Books read:

  • Girls in Peril by Karen Lee Boren
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Occasionally, while I was teaching a reading course and simultaneously working on a novel, and when I reached an impasse in my own work, I began to notice that whatever story I taught that week somehow helped me get past the obstacle that had been in my way. Once, for example, I was struggling with a party scene and happened to be teaching James Joyce’s "The Dead," which taught me something about how to orchestrate the voices of the party guests into a chorus from which the principal players step forward, in turn, to take their solos.

–Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer

I’ve discovered that when I write, I, too, have recalled a particular writer that when I read over his or her work, I was able to come over an impasse in my own work.

I’m becoming a big fan of Prose’s. I’d first read her a few years ago, an article in Harper’s on the problems of teaching literature. Then a few months back I read Blue Angel, her satire of sexual harassment on campus. I was hooked.




1Forgive my hiatus. I’ve just finished my first week at my new job as an adjunct community college instructor, teaching three sections of freshman composition.

I’ve had much I’ve wanted to write in the past few weeks, but some of those ideas have passed.

Anyhow, this morning I was reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (number 21 on my 100 novels list) and I noticed something about this novel–how insignificant of a role setting seems to play. It not only seems true for this book, but also for the last book I read–Karen Boren’s Girls in Peril.

The Color Purple begins with its protagonist, Celie, writing letters to God about her life and the lives of those around her. I was only vaguely aware of what the setting was. It was clear only that this was a poor black community, probably in the South and probably sometime after the Civil War and Emancipation. But how far beyond has been a question I’ve pursued since reading. Celie/Walker only begins to give clues as the narrative progresses. 

The best I can gather is that it’s some time in the early 20th century, and probably in the 20s or 30s. Celie’s sister Nettie talks about visiting Harlem during its renaissance, which occurred in the 20s. But other than these clues, there isn’t much there there.

I’m about halfway through the novel, and the strongest sense of setting comes from the letters Celie finds from Nettie, who is a missionary among the Olinka tribe in Africa. But even in those letters Africa itself seems no more than something we see in old movies and the Olinka, as Nettie describes them, seem like an Everyman tribal people, not really distinct. Of course Nettie isn’t an anthropologist and is selecting particular details to give an overall picture to Celie.

The overall lack of a vivid setting seems to me a weakness in this particular novel. Walker’s use of Celie as a narrator has a lot to do with this weakness. We see only through her eyes and she gives us mostly snapshots of the interactions between characters. It’s hard to get to know her or the other characters, because much of what she describes is the sexual interaction between the characters, and even that seems vague. It’s hard to get a sense of how the world around her affects her. Or does it? Her narration has sort of an autistic feel to it.

In Girls in Peril, the setting is vaguely a Midwestern town in the summer in the mid to late 70s. The narrator is a collective "we" of pre-adolescent/early adolescent girls and the book itself is reminscent of Jeffery Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which also uses a collective "we" narrator, only of boys rather than girls.  

Unlike Eugenides’ book, which presents a vivid suburban Detroit neighborhood, Boren’s girls live in a vague Midwestern suburb, or small town; it’s difficult to be sure. These girls could be anywhere. Nothing really stands out as peculiar to the Midwest, whereas Eugenides develops a neighborhood that is particular and peculiar. It’s hard to imagine the characters in another setting and the setting itself helps bring the characters alive. Boren’s characters are vivid and as a collective "we" do seem like a troop of girls, but other than the curious Jeanne Macek, with her extra thumb, nothing about them really stands out. They aren’t really a part of anything like the boys in Eungenides’ book are a part of their neighborhood.

The homogenized American setting proves to be valuable, though, in Leah Stewart’s The Myth of You and Me. It fits with the protagonist, Cameron, who’s father is in the Air Force, and so she has always been used to moving around, one place like another; her settings, or lack thereof, have influenced her character. She isn’t used to staying in one place for long or with people for long. When she goes to work for the retired historian Oliver in Oxford, Miss., his home becomes the first place that’s really been a true home for her. Living in his home, in which history is so important, helps develop part of Cameron’s conflict–to find a place in the world for herself; it becomes part of her quest to reunite with her friend Sonia.

I like vivid settings in novels and they can add to the character, in most cases. What do you like about setting? Does a vivid setting draw you into a book? As I’m revising my novel, I’m seeing how the characters to some extent are affected by their setting–Austin, Texas, mostly–and I find myself affected by my setting as well (Central Texas in the summer) and I find I keep making digs against the 100-plus degree heat we suffer every summer here. (I’m ready for some cooler weather.) I think if I were writing a science fiction novel, there would be a desert planet in there somewhere.

The Fear of Being Alone

I just finished reading a marvelous short story Tony Takitani by Haruki Murakami in the Summer 2006 issue of Zoetrope All Story.

I’ve read some other Murakami stories in other magazines and have liked what I’ve read.  The titles of those escape me for the moment; I don’t think the title of this one, however, will.

The title character is a successful Japanese businessman, the son of a jazz musician who survived the war in a Chinese prison. Much of the story is about loss and one of the strongest moments comes when Tony gets married. It’s telling that the wife is never named.

He marries not so much from love, but from the fear of being alone.  And yet, even after he marries, he never relinquishes the fear: "The very fact that he ceased to be lonely caused him to fear the possibility of becoming lonely again."

At that line I wrote in the margin, "That’s such a familiar feeling."  How strange to know Tony Takitani’s fear so well. Has anyone else ever felt the same? You can meet someone, cease to be lonely, and yet you become afraid of being lonely again.

Maybe this is why we cling to relationships, whether they’re good or bad: We don’t want to be lonely again. And yet, ultimately, everyone disappears, because of death.  This is what Tony Takitani discovers at the end.

I once had a former friend callously tell me ultimately we are alone. She was particularly annoyed by me still longing for a woman I loved several months after the breakup. 

Back then I couldn’t believe we were alone.  I’m not sure I want to believe it still. I don’t want to discover what Tony Takitani discovers.

books bought/books read

OK, I’ve been bad about keeping you up on my books bought/books read list a la Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree.

So here’s the list for the summer since June 12…

Books bought:

  • Girls in Peril by Karen Lee Boren
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
  • Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
  • A Changed Man by Francine Prose
  • The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Fourth Annual Collection
  • Master Breasts: Objectified, Aestheticized, Fantasized, Eroticized, Feminized By Photography’s Most Titillating Masters, Introduction by Francine Prose
  • The Portable MFA in Creative Writing

Books read since June 12:

  • The Myth of You and Me by Leah Stewart
  • How to be Good by Nick Hornby
  • Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen by Larry McMurtry
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling



Reading, it’s better than ever

This morning, as I started reading The Myth of You and Me by Leah Stewart, I had something of an epiphany, I suppose: I feel as if I’ve become a better reader in the past decade, reading deeply and with sharper understanding, not only of the way a novel works, but a better understanding of character, of how narrative works, etc. The sort of things I should’ve learned in graduate school.

Instead, in graduate school, I tried to pretend to understand a novel and then tried to squeeze a work into theory du jour. Theorist Mikhail Bakhtin was popular then. I had to pretend to understand something he called dialogic discourse. To this day, I can’t really tell you what such a term means. I can only suppose it means multiple narrators within a Text (the preferred academic theory term for a book) talking with each other or some such thing.

I found pleasure in researching scholarship and trying to digest theory (and anyone who knows me knows I’m no philosopher) but reading for the sake of pleasure seemed zapped out of me. I was kind of hunting out hidden esoteric meaning in a novel, and made it even more difficult for myself by finding such things in Faulkner.

I had forgotten the joy of reading for pleasure and encountering the novelist’s ideas, her view of the world, and the shared experience of discovering it with her and her novel’s protagonist, thinking deeply about the world, rather than trying to make the novelist think like a theorist of the novel. Now I can laugh at the hysterical parts of Nick Hornby’s How to be Good and feel his narrator Kate’s sense of frustration as she ponders exactly what it means to be good. And I can be intrigued by Oliver the aging historian’s concept of time and how that’s going to figure into the rest of the The Myth of You and Me. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered reading these days, rather than whatever it was I was doing in grad school.

blogger jailed

I don’t normally use this blog as a forum for political/newsy stuff, but this is a post I found at one of my favorite blog spots and I think it’s important to repost it. It’s a post that should make anyone who blogs or puts anything out publicly in the way of media, professional or amateur, think about what our current regime thinks of our rights not only to free speech, but to avoid being victims of search and seizure by the government….

From Kevin Smokler:

One of Our Own in Jail:

Josh Wolf, who was one of my bloggers for the San Francisco International Film Festival, is in federal prison tonight for refusing to turn over video footage he shot of a war protest in San Francisco last year. The government wants to use it as evidence in the attempted vandalism of a SF Police car. Wolf claims that, if we begin down the road of journalists having to surrender their footage to government investigators, then how do we protect the confidentiality of sources?

I haven’t make up my mind about who is right or wrong here and I really don’t care. As a blogger, a maker of citizen media, Josh is a brother in arms. That I know the guy and know he’s out to make a point, not a stink for its own sake, means I support his case all the more.

So I ask to all readers: Please post this story on your blog. And if you can, make a donation to Josh’s legal defense fund. I don’t want to see more of him and us, jailed in the name of "crime prevention."