Friday, February 26, 2010

February Fiction V: Apparition and Late Fictions by Thomas Lynch

Thomas Lynch is better known in literary circles as the poet-undertaker. Mr. Lynch has written several collections of poetry and books of essays about his life's work--the town undertaker, in small town Michigan.

I have always been drawn to poets who turn their attention to prose. The writing always seems perfect, as if poets know better than the rest of us how to place words so they sing and make sense. Poets have an excellent sense of rhyme and meter in all they attempt to portray on paper. Add this to his interesting life's work, and it was a collection I had to read. Published in January 2010, I was the first one to check it out of the local library.

Apparition consisted of 4 short stories and a novella. I couldn't help but shake the feeling that while well written, they were all fairly similar. They were from the point of view of middle-aged white men, sort of sad and lonely and disappointed by life. The one exception would be the story narrated by a middle-aged white women sort of sad and lonely and dissatisfied with life.

They all have stories of death and tragedy woven in and this strange sort of mouth agape puzzlement about how they ended up where they did. Life held so much promise and now look.

The first story, Catch and Release, about a son setting his father's ashes down the river was the most beautiful: an elegy for a beautiful relationship between father and son. The novella, (which in general I find hard to read) Apparition, was also very good. It had elements, as they all did, of being a sweeping story. The tales of whole lives summed up in patient metaphors. This was no minimalist fiction.

I would recommend this if you like short sad epic stories and are curious about undertakers who write. Mr. Lynch knows how to write about death in all it's iterations.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fiction February Part IV: Water by Alyce Miller

I took a class at IU recently from Ms. Miller, and was surprised when it was over that after all we had talked about and critiqued and discussed, I had never thought to read something she had written. In honor of Fiction February and her fabulous writing class, I picked up her recent award winning collection of short stories called Water.

I don't often read short story collections. I like them and as a fiction writer it is the type of writing that engages me the most. I don't read them because it is too easy to put the book down after one story and move onto something else. The short narratives end and my attention moves somewhere else.

I did leave this and come back to it several times, but finished all nine stories and found every one of them to be interesting and unique. Each story was published previously in other literary reviews. I read them in random order choosing for length depending on what I had time for. Ms. Miller has a spellbinding narrative style. The longer stories were especially captivating and pushed me to read and keep reading, each page turned itself as I was drawn into many different types of life, most rooted firmly in the landscape of the midwest. Several deal squarely with race from the point of view of African American children and young adults which I found really thought provoking.

The strongest stories were the long narratives like My Summer of Love, Friends: An Elegy, and and Hawaii. All of them tore me apart in different ways. They were full of tenderness and confusion about coming of age and straddling disparate worlds. Each story and situation uniquely rendered. If you are looking for short lovely fiction for the coffee shop or the bus ride home, this might be the collection for you. And if you are in the market for a good fiction workshop, I highly recommend her as a teacher as well.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fiction February Part III-The History of Love

As I finished this book, I realized Part III of my fiction series would be aptly ready for posting on February 14th. It is a work of fiction that you will want to read slowly because the words are like perfect poems. They will beg you to savor them. I couldn't put the book down, but I had to. Each portion of the story makes you gasp a little, and you realize that reading a book like this fast is like chug-a-lugging fine wine. This book is a perfect reflection on the age old tradition of love. It is a story about a story and how it found its way from a corner of Nazi occupied Poland to present day New York.

The characters we meet are sweet and memorable. The writer of the story, Leo Gurskey is an old man with nothing except secrets and memories. The girl seeking him, except she doesn't know she is seeking him, is Alma, the name doppelganger of Leo's long ago lost love. The final meeting of the two main characters at the end made me choke a tear or two. An unsuspecting love story of sorts that crosses the ages.

This is the kind of book that warrants re-reading in places because the names and connections can get tangled and confusing. There are also a few love stories and threads that remain unresolved which broke my heart, but ultimately, this book is about fine and perfect writing. This is the novel we all wish we could write. Nicole Krauss inhabits the psyche of her main characters perfectly. You know and love them all within an instant.

Honor your valentine by giving them a copy of The History of Love or better yet, read it aloud to them. It will take your breath away.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

February Fiction Part II: Detective Novel

What I like are books in their homely actuality—the insides of the books, the mysterious movements of characters and situations and the emotions that accompany those movements. The play of sentences, their infinite variety.--Jonthan Lethem on books.

I found this book, oddly, through a true crime story about books. The author wrote about books as objects, things we love, which I can really understand. She made an example of a book called Motherless Brooklyn and told about how her teenage daughter took it to camp with her and dropped it in a river but she could not part with it--even when ruined.

The title was interesting, and that a teenage girl at camp loved it so much that she took it to camp held some intrigue for me, so I requested it from the library. I found myself cracking open the first detective novel I have opened in a long long time for I am not a big fan of mysteries or the detective genre. To sum it up, there are just too many details to keep track of, and I tend to be an impatient reader. What? Who is this guy? I vaguely recall him 100 pages back and now he is the prime suspect?! I am always too lazy to go back and figure it out so there I am stuck in the middle of a crime novel, confused and frustrated.

The description intrigued me though. The main character was a man beset by Tourette’s Syndrome, and I was curious how a man with Tourette’s would behave and how it would affect a detective novel. I have often tried to write about epilepsy and how it effects the brain and behavior, so perhaps I had something to learn.

This book appears to be popular and well known. Jonathan Lethem wrote it in 1999 after he had had several successful science fiction novels (detective science fiction!). He received much praise and awards for this novel including a National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and a Golden Dagger. It seems I am the last to hear of him and his work.

I waded in carefully. It took me awhile to get hooked in the story and yes, true to my prejudice there were times when I got completely lost. In this sense the plot did not do anything for me. It unfolded much the way any detective novel unfolds: murder, unwitting witness to murder becomes amateur sleuth and meets all sorts of unsavory characters who threaten to kill him until a final showdown with the most unlikely of them.

But, what is remarkable about this novel is the hero, Lionel Essrog, who solves the mystery of the murder of his father figure Frank Minna. I read the book to see how a writer could portray and help a reader to understand the complex neurological problem of Tourette's, and I was not disappointed. Lethem helps us to understand where Tourette's comes from and how it works in someone's brain. Further, we see how the the day to day tics of tourette's guide Lionel through his life, and we witness the humiliation Lionel suffers at the hands of friends and strangers who see him as nothing more than a freak.

Lionel Essrog has become for me a truly memorable and sympathetic character. I would love to read another detective story starring this man. Maybe next time he will even get the girl.

What's your favorite work of detective fiction?