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I recently saw Helen Phillips on a panel where writers discussed the architecture of their books. She spoke about how her slim novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat was, at one point, 350 pages long. It is just about half that now and, rather than cut it down, I think I understand that she rewrote it from the ground up in order to work toward the book that so many of us have now read. This is all to say that years of grueling effort went into this book and yet, I read it in an afternoon, as time must have been passing around me, as time does, but I was unaware.
This book is engrossing and transporting from page one, in a way that feels effortless. It’s structure is perfect, every word choice is ideal, the little word games that pepper the text are both charming and moving, and the tone is a carefully calibrated mix of suspense, foreboding, humor, satire and romance. So, what Phillips has done is put so much hard work and effort into the book as to make her hard work and effort invisible. I don’t know if all writers strive for this effect, but I certainly do. I read The Beautiful Bureaucrat with both admiration and envy.
I don’t want to say too much else except that this is a book in which the fact that two of of the very limited cast of characters are named “The Person with Bad Breath” and “Trishiffany” coexists with one of the most wrenching, moving final scenes in recent memory. This book deserves all the hype it is getting and more.
Abby Sher’s Amen, Amen, Amen is among my favorite memoirs. I don’t read a lot of them, i guess, but I’ve read enough to know a few issues I often have with them. Because lives can be repetitive, so can memoirs. I read one recently in which the writer was, I think, too diligent about giving the reader the blow by blow of what happened to her over the course of the story. It was quite a remarkable story, and really interesting in the big picture, but I wished for a good third of it to have been omitted in favor of a quick summary. I find, too, that memoirs tend toward epiphany sometimes and, this too, may be because we do have epiphanies in real life. But, in writing, it is hard for them not to feel imposed on the story. Along the same lines, I often feel like memoirs are too romantic, or self-mythologizing. It’s not necessarily more self-centered to write a memoir than to write any other kind of book, but at times, they take a more self-consciously writerly tone than their stories warrant, which is what makes them skew romantic.
I realize it is strange to start this post talking about all the things that this book didn’t do, but I think of it this way because, given the nature of what Sher was writing about here, she easily could have done them. As a pre-teen, Abby’s favorite aunt and father passed away in quick, sudden succession. From there, her OCD spiraled out, becoming all-consuming. She prayed constantly, kissed special items or words hundreds of time, collected sharp litter from the ground. Later, she developed anorexia and engaged in self-injurious practices like cutting and pounding (pounding–something I’d never heard of). Her relationships with her mother, certain friends, and certain boyfriends were intense and obsessive. She drank way too much. These are all repetitive behaviors and yet the book never felt bogged down in an “and this happened” kind of structure. I think because the narration was so honest and focused, and the writing so, so good, every word felt necessary. Each episode included in the book was there for a reason in the larger scope of the story, not included simply because it happened.
I think Sher avoided epiphany, too, because it was clear from the beginning of the book what sparked her self-injurious behaviors. She structured it so that it was no mystery to the reader that she was living with mental illness, and her behaviors were triggered in earnest because of these early, traumatic instances of loss.
Sher did not romanticize herself or her behaviors, but she also did not paint herself as tragic or cloying. She struck the right balance so the reader was able to see her as the people in her life might–funny, loving, vivacious, but also prone to collecting piles of garbage, to retreating for increasingly long periods of time into closets to pray, to convincing herself that she caused death and destruction everywhere she went (and also places she didn’t). It wasn’t hard to understand why her husband practically proposed to her and checked her into a treatment facility in one breath.
The book ends in a hopeful, healthier place, but one that in no way suggests that Sher’s struggles are resolved. It also includes a list of therapists, treatments centers, doctors and resources for anyone who recognizes any of her behaviors in themselves or a loved one. After reading the book and getting to know this sweet, kind person, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to any reader that, in the end, she wrote this beautiful book in part to help others.
I had The Round House by Louise Erdrich on my bookshelf for about nine months before I remembered it was there. I read it in just a few hours once I picked it up, though. I’m not sure why I don’t site Erdrich as one of my favorite writers when people ask, because she is–I’m reminded every time I read one of her books. She is able to nail both breathtaking sentences, memorable characters and suspenseful, engaging plots all at the same time.
The Round House is about a thirteen year old boy named Joe, his family, and friends as they navigate a terrible crime–a vicious, brutal rape–committed against his mother. (That’s not a spoiler–it happens right away!). There’s the matter of who did it to figure out, and then how to prosecute or avenge the crime once the mystery is solved. There’s the why–both the personal and political. Speaking of politics, there are plenty–national, local, historical, sexual. There’s tradition and religion; some of the most interesting religion is in the person of a young, super-fit, aggressive and enigmatic priest. Read the rest of this entry »