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Julie Otsuka works hard on her fiction–I know she does–but how effortless does she make it seem? Her prose is so spare, simple and genuine that it reveals no evidence of labor or revision. It is so true that it is hard to even imagine her in the act of writing it.


When the Emperor Was Divine was her first novel, which I read just now, a year or two after I read her second, The Buddha in the Attic. Both novels are slim and concern a period in our country’s history that no one talks about very often, I think probably because it is so painfully appalling–the period in which Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps. I’ve seen Julie Otsuka speak; she revealed that these novels are based on the experiences of her mother and her mother’s family. I could barely deal with how much I loved The Buddha in the Attic–the collective voice, the rhythm, the sentence juxtapositions–it was devastating. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been so lucky lately to get to read new books by friends and/or former classmates: Kristen Witucki’s, Leah Umansky’s, now Adrian Van Young’s. The streak will continue soon with new or forthcoming releases by Alex Dimitrov and Jonathan Callahan. In college, Adrian and I were in Paul Russell’s Narrative Writing class together, which was a formative experience. Although it was ten years ago (OMG), I remember so much about that class–all fond memories, which aren’t always the ones that are indelible. There was the time that Paul said (I think I’ve quoted this on this blog before): “If I could caution you against one thing, it would be…well, heroin. But if I got two, the other would be adverbs.” There was the Jonathan Franzen debacle (I know I’ve written about that, like eight times), after which we were banned from mentioning his name for the rest of the year, his Joyce Carol Oates impression, in which he made his eyes large and raised his fists into a boxing stance, the time he brought to class an exotic chicken catalogue that he’d inexplicably received in the mail; rather than simply show it to us, he delivered an operatic interpretive performance of each page while we, the class, sat awed and paralyzed with delight. I remember some, but happily not all, of the mortifying, ridiculous stories I wrote in that class (I was 21…) and definitely remember Adrian’s story in which the heist of a¬†Gutenberg¬†Bible featured prominently. We read Mrs. Bridge, Pnin, The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Street of Crocodiles, which I hated because I felt like all of the sentences were so elevated there was no room for the reader and I’m pretty sure I remember Adrian loved because of those same elevated, dense sentences.

So, although I haven’t read his work (except for an essay…or two? in The Believer) in a while, I wasn’t surprised to discover that his first story collection is also a collection of extreme sentences. Filled with clauses and incredible word choices, they look meandering but aren’t; they’re purposeful. I should know from all the workshopping we’ve done over the years but I don’t–do these sentences come out this way in first drafts or does it take rounds of revising to shape them? Read the rest of this entry »

I downloaded this book the other day because I had some time to read, a bit of leftover holiday money to spend on my Kindle, and the memory of listening to the author have an interesting conversation on my favorite podcast. A memoir about a friend’s suicide isn’t normally what I’d gravitate toward, but subject matter is never what is most important to me. I thought about Darin Strauss’s amazing Half a Life and what a brilliant, nearly flawless book he spun out of guilt and personal tragedy and bought this one.

I suspect that The Guardians needs the subtitle “An Elegy” to stave off readers’ expectations that they’re embarking on a traditional narrative. Read the rest of this entry »