Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Miles Roby has been slinging burgers at the Empire Grill for 20 years, a job that cost him his college education and much of his self-respect. What keeps him there? It could be his bright, sensitive daughter Tick, who needs all his help surviving the local high school. Or maybe it’s Janine, Miles’ soon-to-be ex-wife, who’s taken up with a noxiously vain health-club proprietor. Or perhaps it’s the imperious Francine Whiting, who owns everything in town–and seems to believe that “everything” includes Miles himself. In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace.
I’m currently about halfway through Straight Man, also by Richard Russo. I knew I wanted to do a recommendation for Empire Falls, but I’m not sure yet if I’ll be doing one for Straight Man. I was tempted to just do an Author Spotlight so I could talk about both, but as of right now I’ve only read 1.5 books by Russo. So here we are.
I read this book over the summer, when I was doing a lot of thinking about writing, particularly novel writing and play writing. What I like about play writing is that in many ways it’s the same as novel writing, just super stripped-down. You’re telling the five-part story (introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) with dialogue alone. This is really no different than what’s going on in most novels- there’s just other stuff like character development, setting, etc, etc, that makes it a little more occluded.
Empire Falls is a novel in which the five parts are clearly on display. Miles Roby’s main problem is made very clear from page one: he’s standing still. We spend the first sections of the book (introduction and rising action) learning how very stuck he is, so much so that we’re aggravated by his situation, wishing he was a real person so we could slap him in the face. Predictably, the climax provides the impetus for Miles to come un-stuck.
For all that the plot line is easy to follow, the structure well laid-out, this isn’t a boring or simplistic novel. It won the Pultizer after all. But more than that, it’s a story of humor and heart. His characters are larger-than-life, popping out against the dull background of a backwater, dried-up little town.
The viewpoint shifts between Miles, his father, Max, his ex-wife, Janine, and his daughter, Tick. Every character has a unique voice, allowing them to jump off the page. I particularly enjoyed the characters of Max and to a lesser degree, Janine, because they are both so completely ridiculous. But they’re not presented as caricatures or stereotypes- they are individuals that happen to continually make less than desirable choices.
The pacing is sedate. But it matches Empire Falls. This is a slow, sleepy town where most people live and die without getting out, forever stuck. Once we reach our climax, however, things change with ferocious speed, unsettling the lives of everyone in Empire Falls. Russo demonstrates an extraordinary ability to manipulate the pace, subtly underlining the more complex plot.
This was my first Russo novel and as I’m currently reading Straight Man, it won’t be my last.
In addition to being a reader and book blogger, I’m also a writer. Today, while wandering in Restoration Hardware (of all places), I found this:
It was a bit expensive for what it is, but I got it on sale. And I’m pretty excited about it. Basically, it’s a box filled with cards that you can use to play a story-telling game or, you know, use for simple writing inspiration.
A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” that spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and assaulting women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing. A magnificent parable of loss and disorientation and a vivid evocation of the horrors of the twentieth century, Blindness has swept the reading public with its powerful portrayal of man’s worst appetites and weaknesses-and man’s ultimately exhilarating spirit.
Originally published in 1995 and made into a film in 2008, the novel follows the citizens of the world as they are struck by an epidemic of blindness. The novel centers primarily on the experiences of an eye doctor and his wife as they try to navigate this new world. In an effort to keep the epidemic from spreading, the initial sufferers of the plague of blindness are quarantined in an old mental hospital. From there, the treatment of the blind and their conditions of living fall deplorably.
Saramago’s real stroke of mastery is providing the reader with one character who has not been struck blind amongst all the others- the doctor’s wife. Thus, we are given an eye-witness in the world of the blind.
The metaphorical use of eyes, sight, and vision is appropriately rampant throughout the novel. Told with penetrating detail, Saramago uses the doctor’s wife to provide an entry into this horrific situation. He pays close attention to the level of filth and disorder that gradually coats the world, so much so that it feels oppressive even to the reader.
The doctor’s wife lives in constant fear that she may lose her eyesight like everyone else. Though she fears this development, she also longs for it in that she would not have to see the depravity to which the world has fallen.
When I initially began reading this novel, I was warned that it would be difficult to get through. Not in the sense that the writing isn’t engaging or the plot slow (both quite untrue). Blindness is difficult to get through because Saramago is ruthless in his description of peoples’ behavior towards one another, taking their cruelty and barbarity to a visceral level. Even with the forewarning, I indeed contemplated setting down the book because I was unsure if I could continue reading.
That said, the difficulty in reading the novel is also its strong point. It takes great skill in a writer and storyteller to unsettle the reader to such a degree that they will consider putting the book aside for no other reason than unease.
Grub by Elise Blackwell
A long overdue retelling of New Grub Street—George Gissing’s classic satire of the Victorian literary marketplace—Grub chronicles the triumphs and humiliations of a group of young novelists living in and around New York City.
(This was originally posted up on my other blog, http://feelingfoxy-lifestyle.blogspot.com , on August 26th, 2011. In an attempt to streamline the content on both, this entry has been reposted here.)
Grub is a thoroughly meditative work on the nature of today’s writing and publishing industry. Though her characters are at best, pretentious, they are also charming. Grub is a quick read and yet, like a good wine, lingers long after it’s gone.
Though she begins her book taking the middle path between commercial success (e.g. the sell-out) and literary reputation (e.g. the novelist with five unpublished manuscripts), Blackwell ultimately takes a side. Commercial success becomes the victor in this streamlined book.
Most students of writing are taught, however subtly, to value quality over quantity, literary acclaim over popularity, personal success over money. At the conclusion of this rendition of Grub (a modern retelling of Gissing’s New Grub Street), I’m left to wonder whether one is necessarily the antithesis of the other.
The characters that pursue commercial success, writing for the masses and the market, end up wealthy, successful, and happy. The characters that pursue a sort of “writing of integrity” are not so lucky, yet are nonetheless happy. One gives up fiction writing entirely, in favor of poetry (yet another subject for analysis) and the other lives dirt poor, the epitome of the starving artist. This latter character also ends up risking his life to save his unpublished manuscript which ultimately becomes a flop. And finally, the last of the central characters, burned by writing what was apparently considered “too literary of a novel”, ends up in rural Illinois, teaching.
When painted in such stark terms, is it any wonder two of the characters “sell-out” and choose commerical success? Wouldn’t you, if you could be successful AND a writer?
Less and less people are reading these days. Even less bother to pick up physical books at the bookstore, downloading instead onto Kindle or Nook or simply just reading online. Even audio books are gaining in popularity. So what does that mean for today’s writer?
In a world of increasing instant gratification and technological gluttony, if you want someone to read your book you’ve got to really hook them. Hard. Gone are the days where people spend hours browsing local bookstores or used book havens. With the folding of Borders and Barnes & Nobles’ own rumored financial worries, the aisles of chain bookstores bear a closer resemblance to a sort of tomb, a remembrance of the glory days of print publishing. If someone is reading a book, it’s usually because they picked it up on the bestseller stand at some airport, someone recommended it to them, or the movie came out last week.
Is print publishing dead? I hope not. But it’s not the same as it once was. Every market has to grow up and the book market is no different. People have greater choice than they ever did before. If you want to sell your product, you’ve really got to sell it. You need to convince them that your product is infinitely better than the hundred other similar products available. When people buy your product, it’s because they’re confident in you, in it, and in their future enjoyment. This is commercial writing.
Does that mean that we should give up writing books for their literary merit? Of course not. But writers and their values need to evolve. Your novel may be as great as a Tolstoy masterpiece, but few people are reading anything at all, let alone anything that takes a real literary appreciation and determination to plow through. I’ve read War & Peace; how about you? No? Congratulations, you’ve just landed squarely in the vast majority.
When I tell people I’m a writer, that I study literature, that I read a lot, that I’m writing a novel, they invariably ask: what do you like to read? As if my opinions should matter more than theirs. But for all my education for all my reading, what it really comes down to is: Everything. I have no standards, no snobbish tendencies. I liked the whole Twilight series. I also like Harry Potter. Jane Austen was a fabulous writer. Ripping into a new Jodi Picoult novel is like sinking your teeth into the first baked goods of fall. The adventure series’ of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child enrapture me. I also like the Gossip Girl series. And the Pretty Little Liars series. In the whole of my life of readership, I can maybe point at a handful of books I didn’t like. In some cases, that displeasure I felt can surely be attributed to not being of the right age and/or state of mind to enjoy the book properly.
Novels are good, bad, great, excellent, or simply mediocre. But what do they all have in common? They have a target audience. And that’s who you’ve got to write to. Today, writing is less a noble art and more a direct plea to the human population not to give up on reading, not to give up on novels, and their authors. To convince people to keep reading, you have to offer something better than constant tweeting, Facebook updates, or online television streaming. You have to remind them why books are worth it. Even if you have to slug them over the head with one.
(This was originally posted up on my other blog, http://feelingfoxy-lifestyle.blogspot.com , on August 17th, 2011. In an attempt to streamline the content on both, this entry has been reposted here.)
Yesterday I had a conversation with someone. I told her I was writing a play about a prison psychologist who is counseling an inmate. She asked if I had any experience with any of that. Of course I had to say no-I have never been a prison psychologist, a student of psychology, a prisoner, or a murderer.
One of the great tenets of writing has always been to write what you know. But, if we all wrote about what we knew we wouldn’t have half the books that we do. I’m sure there’s someone out there who knows what it’s like to fight the greatest dark wizard of all time or fall in love with a vampire. But that person isn’t J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer. Rowling doesn’t know what it’s like to fly on a hippogriff any more than Meyer knows what it’s like to give birth to a half-vampire baby. Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game Series) doesn’t know what it’s like to be a child soldier training in space or the savior of the human race. Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper) doesn’t know what it’s like to have your parents forcing you to donate your bodily material to your sister. Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games Series) doesn’t know what it’s like to fight to stay alive in a dystopian world. Bram Stoker (Dracula) didn’t know what it would be like to be a guest of Dracula. George Orwell (1984, Animal Farm) didn’t have a time machine that allowed him to visit the world as it would be in 1984. Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple Series) was no renowned criminal investigator. Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) was a writer, not a detective. Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) didn’t know what it was like to bring something to life that terrified and filled her with shame. Richard Wright (Native Son) never murdered a white girl. Justin Cronin (The Passage) never lived through a vampire apocalypse. Phillip Pullman (His Dark Materials Series) didn’t have a daemon by his side while penned his famous trilogy. Cormac McCarthy (The Road) never wandered through a post-apocalyptic world.
So if these authors didn’t write about what they knew, how did they do it? With time, research, and where research failed, imagination. And of course, an understanding of the human condition.
To write a great novel or series of novels, you need not have traveled far and wide or seen great things. You simply need to understand what it is to be alive. That’s all characters need, wherever they be. Life.
The Leftovers by Tom Perrota
That’s what the bewildered citizens of Mapleton, who lost many of their neighbors, friends and lovers in the event known as the Sudden Departure, have to figure out. Because nothing has been the same since it happened—not marriages, not friendships, not even the relationships between parents and children.
I was excited to read this book even before it came out. And now I’ve done it. I was pretty certain I would love it before. But it was while reading it that I realized it’s kind of speaking to where I am in my life right now.
This is a book about people trying to find their way in a world that doesn’t make sense anymore. And that’s where I am. In a world that doesn’t make sense to me anymore. The characters of the novel, told in shifting perspective from the four members of the Garvey family (Kevin, the dad, Laurie, the mother, Jill, the daughter, Tom, the son) and Nora Durst, are angry and sad and bitter and confused and lonely and just plain unhappy. And those are exactly all the emotions I’m feeling.
Now that I’ve accounted for my slightly biased opinion, I can move on to why this was such an excellent read. Beyond that the book spoke to me, which is kind of what books are supposed to do anyway, right? Provided a method of escapism that simultaneously provides a measure of identification and comfort.
The Leftovers unfolds linearly and then it doesn’t. There isn’t a clear forward moving plot. We move forward in time, months pass, things happen (including the length of a pregnancy), but there’s no real driving problem that is being solved, nothing that the characters are attempting to accomplish, that they’re being inexorably drawn to. But it fits. These are characters whose lives have no direction anymore, who are just moving aimlessly in tangents, trying to find where they belong in a world that looks the same, but isn’t. There’s plot structure in terms of the individual character’s arcs, but there isn’t any earth-shattering conclusions or revelations to mark the overarching narrative (well, there’s one. But I kind of honestly didn’t care and I don’t know that we were even supposed to care). This is a tame spoiler, but a spoiler nonetheless: they each achieve something that approximates peace. And let me draw an arrow right here to illustrate the metaphor of this novel and its relation to my life (promise, I’m done).
So maybe the Rapture isn’t going to happen in our lifetime. Maybe it’s not even real. Maybe the Mayans are gonna wipe us out on December 21st, 2012 (look at that folks we might be celebrating the last New Year we’ll ever see!). Maybe we’re gonna keep keeping on for another billion or so years until the sun explodes or something. Whatever. Our lives gets destroyed by things big and small, directly and indirectly. Maybe it’s not as showy as the disappearance of millions or a big flaming fireball, but when things gets broken beyond repair, it doesn’t matter whether it’s just your pain or the pain of the whole world. Suddenly, you have to rebuild your life, knowing that however many days or weeks or months or years of your life had the mark of untruth upon them, thought you never knew it as you were passing through. That is the real message of The Leftovers: how to be happy when it seems like you can’t possibly ever be happy again.
And lest you think I’m waxing too poetic, I’m going to close with a pop culture reference and a video. Like Rihanna says, we can find love in a hopeless place.
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
At the risk of sounding redundant, I’m going to discuss The Hunger Games. Everyone on Earth is discussing these books. When they’re not discussing Twilight. Not that I’m categorizing, just that the same crowd seems pretty down with both series. But then they like Harry Potter too, so maybe they have more good judgment than bad. (I sense that one day I may have to do a post about Twilight. It’s kind of de rigeuer for a blog about books. Even though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them.)
But we’re talking about Katniss and Gale and Peeta. Let’s just start with the perfection of names- odd enough in their own right, unique amongst literary characters, inappropriate for dogs, and still pronounceable in English. Suzanne Collins, 1.
This is a pretty violent series for young adults. But I’m glad. If there’s anything children need, it’s toughening. Especially the group these books are aimed for. Not all parents may approve (the blood! the gore! the murder! the implied sex!), but then their children are always more grown-up than they want to admit. These books land solidly in the category of dystopian futures. That means the Hunger Games is sharing shelf space with 1984 and Brave New World. Not bad for a contemporary series of young adult novels. Suzanne Collins, 2.
As main characters go, Katniss Everdeen is pretty likeable. I’m not a huge fan of central characters myself. I always find myself drawn to the side characters who steal the show (*cough* Haymitch *cough*). But Katniss is very much aware of her own shortcomings as a human beings. At times, a little too aware. But not like she has much else to contemplate. Her life fairly sucks all around. I particularly enjoyed Katniss in the third book. Her demons, frailties, and guilt all contribute to making her tough as Tungsten. Suzanne Collins, 3.
I have high hopes for the upcoming films. It has to be better than the Twilight films. It has to. If it’s not, I’m going to stand back and let my writing major and film studies minor work it out in a cage fight.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
From the publisher: On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope–and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.
It’s been over two decades since Dan Simmons first published Hyperion. In perspective, the book was published a few weeks after I was born. But it is to my extreme misfortune that I never crossed paths with this book until a few months ago.
What’s not to like about science fiction that is heavily influences by and pays homage to the literature that came before it? The premise of the novel sets the seven pilgrims on a Chaucer-like pilgrimage to the Shrike and the Time Tombs. So maybe it’s not exactly the England of the Canterbury Tales. But you’ve got to appreciate an author who winks and smiles at his readers and assures them there’s a reason they struggled through Chaucer, however painful or not painful.
Hyperion is kind of like sci-fi for literature nerds. In addition to the Chaucer, we’ve got allusions to John Keats and his unfinished poem, “Hyperion, as well as digs at the sci-fi publishing industry and a tip-of-the-hat to William Gibson and the classic noir novels of Raymond Chandler. Simmons is a total literature nerd. And I can’t help, but love him for it. Who else would I want guiding me through this bleak and grotesque future of the post-Earth Hegemony?
Told in parts by the Pilgrims, we get a terrible and beautiful picture of the world called Hyperion. I knew I was in love with Hyperion when I stayed up two extra hours reading about the trials and tribulations of Father Dure amongst the Bikura and then spent another two hours after that trying to fall asleep. And I wasn’t even sorry about it in the morning.
The back-cover description from the publisher doesn’t do this book justice. Sure, it piqued my interest. But after reading Hyperion itself I can’t help, but feel that the enticement falls quite flat and feels lame in comparison to the novel itself. I’m told that the later books in this series (The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and Endymion Rising) don’t pack the same extraordinary one-two punch of horror and beauty. I’m not deterred though; I’ll inspect these books for myself.
Simmons is a talented writer. The world of the Hegemony is well-constructed and life-like. We believe in the characters, their unique voices, and their tortured pasts. We believe in the pilgrimage, in the war, and in the Hegemony. And above all, we believe in the Shrike.
I’ve always loved reading and writing. So much so that people ask me to recommend books to them. I’ve found myself doing this more and more often lately, so it seemed appropriate to devote a blog to this.
My vision: I won’t be posting everyday or even on a regular schedule. I’m a student in my last year at UCSD so I don’t get to read as much as I’d like. But I’ll try not to let it get too quiet on here. My intent is to mainly publish reviews about books I genuinely enjoyed and would recommend to people. I’d also like to do some author spotlights, as there are some authors whose works I have devoured in their entirety and thus it seems more appropriate to recommend them on the whole.
If you have suggestions about books I should check out or you’re an author and want me to read your book, drop me a line.