For this month’s Readers’ Workshop, we read Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters with the goal of paying attention to paragraphs.
So what did we notice? That Fox is a master at dialogue and paragraphing.
Jonathan Franzen agrees. In the novel’s introduction, he calls Fox’s prose a pleasure, and notes that her sentences are “small miracles of compression and specificity, tiny novels in themselves.”
Some may say the title is not catchy enough, but most of the Readers’ Workshop participants agreed that it’s apt. The book is filled with literally desperate characters. (One person mentioned they kept referring to the novel as “Desperate Creatures,”at first accidentally but soon realized they might be on to something).
Even though most of us wanted to have a nice, stiff drink while reading it, we appreciated the writing, how human the characters felt, and the way that Fox moved us. She made us feel uncomfortable, and perhaps even desperate.
And yet some members said they read the novel twice or were in the process of re-reading it. A testament to the odd draw that Fox seems to have on readers – you cause us discomfort and we come back for seconds.
Fox passed away this month, she was 93. Several club members recommended reading the New York Times obituary, and I’m glad I did. Knowing more about her life helped put some of the themes and the setting of the novel in perspective.
This was our third month of reading closely per Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. What have we gotten out of it so far? Some are finding it to be a hard habit to instill – they have to consciously remind themselves to slow down and read closer (myself included). Others have decided to continue reading for plot first and then taking time after finishing a novel to reflect on the writing.
Regardless we are meeting each month and having thoughtful discussions about the novels we read and the writing we are learning to appreciate even more.
We’re having a heat wave in Maryland. With temperatures in the 70s in February, many of us wander around delighted and frightened. For those with gardens, the temptation to get back in the dirt is strong. But will we have another frost before spring? After experiencing Japan’s gardens we’re more inspired than usual to prune this, shape that, plant those. When you look at this tree and you imagine the patience that went into forcing this pine to take that shape you remember that gardening is an exercise in restraint. Step away from the shears and wait a few weeks.
It’s not often when you can watch a movie adapted from a book and really enjoy it, so that’s not what this list is about. Instead, I’ve rounded up some movies and books that are better together.
Watch: Boy. Read: The Bone People
Boy is one of those quirky and sweet films you can’t get out of your head. Set in New Zealand, it’s a coming-of-age story of a young boy whose absent father isn’t quite the hero he thought he was.
Meanwhile, The Bone People by Keri Hulme, is also set in New Zealand and also has a young boy as a main character who is dealing with his own set of issues – being orphaned in a shipwreck and being physically abused. It’s a challenging and complex book that causes you to rethink what you know about the very flawed characters. Having said that, it’s one of those books you’ll hug after you finish reading it.
Watch: Brooklyn. Read: Another Brooklyn
Oscar-nominated Brooklyn tells the story of a young Irish immigrant who moves to the U.S. in the 1950s in search of more job opportunities. She falls in love with an Italian-American, but unexpectedly has to return home to Ireland. While there, she has to decide between her old and new homes.
Fast forward a couple of decades and you’re still in Brooklyn, but with Jaqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn you get the story of a black girl who moved with her father and brother to Brooklyn from Tennessee in the 70s. The short book is packed with thoughtful insights about our memories coming into contact with hard truths.
Watch: The Dressmaker. Read: The Luminaries
Have you seen The Dressmaker yet? It is one dark, bizarre tragedy of a movie. Kate Winslet shines. Set in Australia, a young woman returns to her provincial hometown after launching a successful career as a dressmaker.
Elanor Catton’s The Luminaries is set in New Zealand during the gold rush and follows a very mysterious, twisting story with a dozen main characters. The connection between these two is a little harder to make, I know. But just trust me on this one.
Watch: The Railway Man. Read: Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Railway Man starts with a wife trying to understand her husband’s psychological problems. As a young man, he was in a Japanese POW camp during World War II where he was forced to work on the Thai Burma Railway. The wife and a close friend try to help him overcome the trauma of his youth.
Although The Railway Man is an adaptation of a book by the same name, the film shares a lot of similarities with the Man Booker Winning Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. In the book, an Australian doctor becomes a war hero after surviving a Japanese POW camp tasked with building the Burma Railway.
Watch: Spotlight. Read: The Burglary
You watch Spotlight and you realize how the absolutely unglamorous work of investigative journalism can have a profound impact on so many lives.
You read The Burglary by Betty Medsger and you see how the brave actions of unlikely citizens (in conjunction with the help of a journalist to share their story) can bring down an institution as big as the FBI. More from me about that book here.
What makes a sentence great? Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer says it’s difficult to quantify but that when you read strong, vigorous, and clear sentences it makes you want to get out a pen and paper and start diagramming sentences.
For the second Readers’ Workshop we focused on sentences and how Philip Roth uses sentences in the Pulitzer Prize winning American Pastoral.
Authors can write sentences for grammar, clarity or rhythm.
Grammar makes the reader comfortable – we expect grammatical sentences.
Clarity is a higher ideal than grammatical correctness, so if a writer needs to break a rule to get a point across they will do so. But it’s deliberate and well thought out.
Finally a writer may choose to write a sentence for rhythm, and possibly choose a slightly wrong word to make the sentence more musical.
We saw examples of all of this in Roth’s sentences, which Prose describes as energetic and varied, with fragments scattered among full sentences.
The energy in the sentences can be felt in the rhythm that Roth uses quite often – one long sentence followed by three to four short sentences. Roth uses brief sentences (even fragments) much like a drum beat. You can almost feel this build up of tension as the 400-page lament keeps spilling out.
One thing we almost all agreed on – American Pastoral is a challenging read. The content, the characters, even those beautiful sentences can be intense.
A man in the book club who is the same age as Roth (and also grew up in the Northeast and is also Jewish) said that Roth’s books are so familiar to him. It’s people he knew. It’s the people he grew up with. It’s his father, his friends. On the other hand, a woman who is the same age as Roth said that even though the characters and life experiences were so different from her own, she felt that it was very real.
American Pastoral is very male-centric, and many of us noted how the narrator and the main character really misunderstood the female characters in the novel. It was a stark contrast from last month with Alice Munro. One club member suggested that Munro should write the story of one of the female characters (the speech therapist) and we all agreed that was an excellent idea.
So, Alice, we’re waiting.
For March we’re learning about paragraphs and reading Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. Won’t you join us?
Before we got a dog, we watched an embarrassing amount of youtube videos of puppies doing funny things. Like the chow in a bowl. The bouvier behind a wheelbarrow. The confused malamute. Once we got our puppy, we realized we were now living inside a youtube video. Everything Balthasar does is hilarious to us. The whining and whistling to wheedle us into giving him absolutely anything. The natural curiosity that has him staring down everything that moves. The muted barks as he dreams. The head tilts. He has become a constant source of entertainment. Maybe we need a youtube channel?
Note: He doesn’t have a youtube channel, but Balthasar is on Instagram if you’d like to follow his adventures: @bouvierbalth.
Have you ever struggled with describing exactly why you like or dislike a book? Maybe you enjoyed the plot, related to the characters, but for some reason you wouldn’t recommend it to others.
I’ve had this problem for a long time. Usually my response would be, “well, the writing isn’t great.” But what did I mean by that? What made the writing mediocre?
Then I read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and suddenly I had the knowledge and tools to notice a beautifully crafted sentence, natural dialogue, and unforgettable details. The main idea is to read slowly and closely—word by word. When we read for plot we can just fly through a book, but Prose advocates reading analytically by paying attention to style, detail, dialogue, diction and how sentences were formed and information conveyed.
Because this book made such an impact on my reading, I am leading a book club called Readers’ Workshop throughout 2017. It’s held the second Thursday of every month (except December) at 7 p.m. at the Curious Iguana bookstore in Frederick, MD.
We are using Reading Like a Writer as a reference guide and we’ll read one chapter a month as well as a work of fiction. We’ve only met once so far, and already I’ve learned a lot from the participants. So I am planning to write blog posts summarizing some of the discoveries we make as a group.
This past Thursday we read the chapter on the importance of words (Chapter 2) and Alice Munro’s short story collection, Moons of Jupiter.
Prose describes Munro’s writing as plain, sparse and Spartan. Although it seems effortless, every word “challenges you to think of a more direct, less fussy way to say what she’s saying.”
The club members agreed with Prose’s characterization and pointed out that despite the fact that she uses such plain language and short sentences, the stories are very complicated and dense and tackle difficult subjects like psychological abuse.
One person pointed out that Munro has a lot of respect for her readers—she trusts that we’ll be able to figure out the meaning and depth in her stories.
Another member said that her writing is almost as sparse and spare as poetry, but that she has a precision that is exact. We may not have loved every story in the collection, but we could all agree that you are rewarded when you slow down and pay attention to Alice Munro’s language.
If you find yourself with a garden space that is horizontally challenged, take a tip from the Spaniards and go vertical. In countless courtyards throughout Cordoba, gardeners are not deterred by limited space. Instead they put plants in containers that climb up the walls toward the sunlight. No need to get fancy with the pots, simple terra cotta will do. Add in some blossoming flowers in coordinating colors, mix up the textures of the foliage, and just keep rising higher and higher. One more thing: consider drought-resistant plants because watering all of these regularly would be bothersome.
Today the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to an American.
Did you know that only about a dozen American writers have won the Nobel in Literature (and a few of those came to the U.S. as adults)? The New Yorker has an interesting piece about why the U.S. has been snubbed.
Some could see today’s award as yet another snub to American literature. Why? Because the prize went to Bob Dylan.
Yes, that Bob Dylan.
Instead of focusing on that, let’s look at some of the American authors who have received that coveted prize. There are some heavy hitters on the list – Hemingway. Steinbeck. Faulkner. Instead I’ll share five books I recommend from Americans who won a Nobel Prize in Literature.
1) Joseph Brodsky – Less Than One
This book is a collection of essays that delve into everything from traveling to poetry to Soviets. I blogged about a snippet from one of the essays here. As someone who finds reading poetry quite difficult, I appreciated the almost lecture-like dissections of poets and poetry in some of the essays.
2) Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon
Morrison is such a gem to American literature. Song of Solomon was the first book I read by her and I was wowed.
3) Czeslaw Milosz – Issa Valley
When I finished this book, I made a note that Milosz was a Polish Mark Twain. The book’s child protagonist lives an idyllic life in a village deep in the forests of Eastern Europe. It’s hard not to imagine Huck Finn.
4) Isaac Bashevis Singer – Meshugah
Meshugah means nuts in Yiddish, and, boy, can this book be nutty. The novel is about Holocaust survivors in New York City in the 50s and the narrator is a Yiddish columnist who gets entangled with a much younger married woman. There’s love. Sin. Entrapment.
5) Saul Bellow – Humboldt’s Gift
Humboldt’s Gift is a bit of a neurotic look at the life of writers (this is perhaps why I enjoyed it).
Immigration has been a hot topic this campaign season and, as the spouse of an immigrant, I get frustrated with the misinformation, distrust and xenophobia that’s been dominating the national conversation.
What is life really like for immigrants? Obviously there isn’t a universal experience, but we can turn to fiction to help us discover some common themes among the different categories of immigrants. Read these four award-winning books to get a glimpse of the lives of a variety of immigrants.
1) The Refugee: The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen
The 2016 Pulitzer prize winner follows the story of a Vietnamese man who is an undercover communist agent during the Vietnam War. A large portion of the story is set in California where the main character lives as a refugee with other Vietnamese who are having to endure the transition of having been esteemed military leaders and are now forced to live unassuming and impoverished lives in the U.S. This is definitely a common theme among refugees and immigrants who end up in America and have to start all over again. This time from the very bottom.
2) The Immigrant Without a Visa: The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
Winner of the Man Booker Prize, this book follows the lives of two Indians, including one who is an immigrant living and working in the U.S. illegally. This novel does an excellent job of debunking the fantasy of many immigrants that they will make tons of money quickly in the U.S. and can either send money home or just move back home. This is hard to do even when you have a visa, but even harder if you’re not legally able to work.
3) The Student Visa: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
Americanah (winner of the National Book Critics Circle award) is a novel about an immigrant from Nigeria
on a student visa, which is a good contrast to the story of the visa-less immigrant. As great of an opportunity as it may be to get a visa to study in the United States, one common problem students have is that they have no way to legally earn money even while in school. Only the most privileged of us are able to get through college without working a part-time (or full-time) job at the same time. When I shared parts of the book with my husband he would say, “that’s too real.” This quote was one of those.
They would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.
4) The Immigrant, Permanent Resident, Naturalized Citizen: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpar Lahiri
The final category is of those immigrants who live and work in the United States legally and may even have become citizens. Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories focuses on the lives of Indian immigrants, but reading the stories I could relate to the challenges and themes as a wife of an Eastern European immigrant. The stories focus a lot on learning to live in a new, vastly different culture than your own, which is something most immigrants will experience.