Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Nam Le's collection, The Boat, published by Knopf (May 2008). This review originally appeared in The Common Review 7:2, Fall 2008.
Review by Penelope Mesic
In "Meeting Elise," the third of seven stories in the masterful debut collection The Boat by Nam Le, a successful New York painter named Henry Luff struggles with the painful onset of cancer, the death of his young muse/mistress/model Olivia, and the nervous anticipation of meeting his daughter, Elise, a virtuoso cellist raised since infancy in Russia by Luff's embittered ex-wife. Funny, cynical, and largely friendless, Henry describes the genuinely kind owner of the gallery who represents him as having "eyes so earnest he looks like a cross between a TV evangelist and a cow." Yet Henry adds, "He only wants what's best for me, he says, and in that precise moment I realize it's true. He's the only one." In other words, Nam catches Henry at his moment of greatest need, when the odds are overwhelmingly against him and when the character himself is keenly aware that his resources--mental, emotional, practical--are completely unequal to his circumstances.
This is, in fact, the archetypal pattern of the stories in this collection, in which Le's characters are as powerless as figures in the philosophy of Epictetus but nowhere near as stoical. "Halflead Bay," set in an Australian fishing village, catches the adolescent Jamie when he has let himself be seen kissing the girlfriend of the town bully, who is known for having beaten an Asian immigrant woman to death. In "Cartagena," the Columbian narrator is a novice hit man who, having assassinated 14 people in the past four months, is now ordered to kill a childhood friend.
If they are lucky enough to survive or prosper, Le's characters do so with the knowledge that it is not by their own efforts but by chance. This sounds dispiriting, but the telling of it isn't. The exhilarating accuracy of Le's observations amounts to a steady pulse of vitality. To notice so keenly amounts to pleasure in life and justifies his audacious global reach, with stories set in North and South America, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East.
The characters, too are uneasily aware of crisscrossing a world they understand poorly. In "Tehran Calling," Sarah, a 35-year-old attorney from Portland, visits her old friend Parvin in Iran. Arriving during the holy week of Ashura, she instantly realizes that her ignorance, particularly of what social behaviors might be construed as wanton or unchaste, carries a grave risk. In the United States, her friend Parvin was a joker, a free spirit who dyed her hair purple; in Iran her unconventionality has deepened to political dissent and advocacy of women's rights. Sarah fears that Parvin regards her lack of commitment as a shortcoming, her life as easy and purposeless. But how could Sarah show mastery in a place she scarcely understands?
There have been few short story writers since Nabokov with such an economical aptitude for zeroing in on what is memorable and definitive. In "Halflead Bay," when an artist with multiple sclerosis falls, pulling down her easel, they lie "as though she'd ben dancing with it and they'd tripped over together." In "The Boat," Mai, about to leave Vietnam, searches for one last glimpse of her mother's face, "but the street, like a wound, had closed over the space where it had been."
No one can be this good, this young, without some display of bravado. There is a cheeky self-awareness in the opening story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice." (The title lists things Faulkner regarded as worth writing about, germane because the young narrator of Vietnamese birth--whom we are given every reason to regard as the author himself--attends the Iowa Writer's Workshop.) Slyly, the narrator mentions a fellow writing student's comment: "That's why I don't mind your work, Nam. . .Because you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. . .but instead, you choose to write about. . .Colombian assassins. . .and New York painters." The joke, of course, is that the last story in Le's collection is indeed about Vietnamese boat people, yet by the time we arrive at it, it is far from predictable or standard fare.
As "Love and Honor" begins the narrator's father arrives after 33 hours of air travel and immediately sets to work washing his son's dirty dishes, a gesture annoyingly reproachful or shamingly affectionate--or both. The son responds by hiding his booze and the photograph of his girlfriend. But under this bright mosaic of surface details--the conventions of a child trying to escape a controlling parent--are feelings so strong and so binding that it is useless even to say whether they amount to love or hate, only that they relate to a tragedy in the father's past that has mortgaged the son's future.
A similar sense that one's life belongs to another informs "The Boat." Sixteen-year-old Mai, adrift for 13 days in a broken-down trawler with 200 other Vietnamese refugees, forms a bond with a sickly and impassive little boy. Dozens die of thirst and illness. Mai sees "how necessary it was to stay on the surface of things. Because beneath the surface was either dread or delirium."
Le inhabits this nightmarish world as straightforwardly as he does the New York of cello concerts. After all, the artist Henry Luff, too, is almost certainly a goner, and in a way, equally adrift. The stories in The Boat sometimes end with separation or death, yet Le leaves us with the conviction that this is what writing is for: to record the connections between people that even death cannot undo.
Penelope Mesic has written criticism and commentary for periodicals as diverse as Poetry and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. She lives on an island with gratifyingly poor television reception.
Monday, May 23, 2011
Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Tom Bissell's collection, God Lives in St. Petersburg: Short Stories, published by Pantheon (January 2005). This review originally appeared in The Common Review 4:2, Fall 2005.
Review by Andrew Benedict-Nelson
In Bissell's God Lives in St. Petersburg, we learn that a picture of Ernest Hemingway adorns every English classroom in the nations of the former Soviet Union. Along with Jack London and Paul Robeson, Hemingway represented a model American for Soviet youth. But for most Americans, Hemingway represents the ideal expatriate, the artist who has forsaken his homeland for the pursuit of truth and the occasional marlin.
Yet as the stories in Bissell's book show us, today's aspiring expats (no matter how earnest) have become absurd in a world of unchallenged American power. These six tales follow Americans in Central Asia, specifically the region's former Soviet republics and Afghanistan. Each story's principal character goes abroad looking for something--an escape from the death of a loved one, aid for an ailing marriage, academic prestige--only to find one's personal assumptions challenged far from home. Each character also loses something precious while retaining a cumbersome American-ness.
Many of the observations of these stories (and an earlier memoir) are based on Bissell's experience as an English teacher in Uzbekistan. As a result, the book is more about what it means to be American overseas than what it means to be Tajik or Kyrgyz at home. This does represent neglect on the author's part, but honesty. Books that purport to portray the authentic culture or genuine plight of another people often wind up as patronizing or just plain wrong. Bissell's book is neither. Indeed, he has quite accurately drawn the many wrinkles in America's present, ambivalent face to the world.
For instance, in the title story (which won the Pushcart Prize), a young missionary named Timothy discovers how much of his identity, both religious and sexual, depended on familiar surroundings. In the United States, the presence of God had been a "glowing cylinder." In Uzbekistan, that presence has become distant radio static. Meanwhile, his students in an English class, cynical about the discredited rumor of a man named Khristos, seem to care more about Timothy's relationship to the American embassy than to the divine.
It's no surprise that this story, like most in the collection, ends up badly for its main character. But Bissell does not appear to have an anti-American axe to grind. Each of his characters decays in a uniquely beautiful way, independent of birthplace. Through Bissell's dexterous narrative style, not unlike Hemingway's, we discover that we Americans can still get good and lost just about anywhere.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson serves as Digital Agitator with The Insight
Labs, a Chicago-based initiative that brings together creative minds
from the private sector with leaders from non-profit and government to
solve seemingly intractable challenges. His work has appeared in the
Times Literary Supplement, Bookmarks Magazine, Another Chicago
Magazine, and other venues.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Tobias Wolff's collection, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, published by Knopf (March 2008). This review originally appeared in The Common Review 7:2, Fall 2008.
Review by Annie Tully
For aficionados of the short story--in particular the American short story of the last 50 years--Tobias Wolff's mustachioed face is surely carved into an imaginary Mount Rushmore of short fiction masters, along with Raymond Carver and perhaps Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, or Annie Proulx. (If there's room for T. C. Boyle, Stephen Dixon, Jayne Anne Phillips, and many others, it might have to be a rather large memorial for an art form so distinctly American.) Wolff is indeed an American master of the form, and his skill is again on display in a hefty collection of work, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, a collection of 21 older stories and ten more recent, all ripe with Wolff's trademarks--characters at self-imposed crossroads, clear and direct prose, settings of small towns, apartment buildings, army barracks, and leafy universities. For those unfamiliar with Wolff or familiar only with his memoirs (This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army were enormous hits) or an occasional story from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, this book delivers a good dose of what its storyteller is capable of doing. It's a cohesive gathering of tales with common threads and a distinct style running clear throughout.
The most common trait of that style is Wolff's fascination with very commonplace occurrences and the minute decisions and thoughts that happen to his everyman characters. The protagonists here range from academics to soldiers to adolescent boys, and the events in which Wolff situates them display the same variety. Yet what seems to fascinate Wolff as a writer--and will fascinate his readers as well upon reading this collection--is the way in which a character's smallest action, memory, or train of thought will wrap around a less significant plot line as if it's the grandest revelation of all time. And for his characters, many of whom are at turning points in their lives, these small moments are that enormous.
. . .
There is a sleepy introspection common to all Wolff's protagonists. Whether an unhappy wife or a middle-aged man who learns of the death of his first love, Wolff's characters often live fully inside their minds in order to take themselves out of what is happening around them. We see this in the young man in "The Liar," who tells extraordinary, unprovoked tales after the death of his father, and whose mother tells him, "You don't have to make all these things up, James. They'll happen anyway." We see it again with a young boy in "Flyboys," when he describes sneaking into his friend's family study to look at family photos, a ritual of sorts. "You could see it in the pictures that they took it all in stride, the big spreads behind them, the boats and cars, and their relaxed, handsome, families, who, it was clear, did not get laid off, or come down with migraines, or lock each other out of the house. I pondered each picture as if it were a door I might enter."
Fibbers and storytellers populate Wolff's world, characters who must lie to carry on with living. In "The Other Miller," a soldier who has enlisted only to upset his mother talks about her to a fellow soldier: "'It's just that I didn't know her all that well,' Miller says and after this monstrous lie a feeling of weightlessness comes over him." Due either to boredom, self-loathing, or unhappiness with how their lives are going or have turned out, Wolff's characters dream.
This is not to say that Wolff's plots are lacking. There is wonderful variety to the events of these stories and each tale is told with a craftsman's fine touch. Yet plot takes a back seat to character and thought. And underneath each plot, no matter how commonplace or eventful and no matter what the outcome, the hearts of his stories reveal a depth and an empathy that are joyous. If we don't get around to carving Wolff's face into a mountain, at least we have this collection to cherish.
Annie Tully creates public programs in literature and the arts in Chicago. She has written reviews for Booklist, the Chicago Sun-Times, and Bookslut.com.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Paul Yoon's debut collection, Once the Shore, published by Sarabande Books. This review originally appeared in The Common Review 8:2, Fall 2009.
Review by Lindsay Tigue
In his debut collection, Paul Yoon elegantly links a group of stories set on the fictional island of Solla, off the coast of South Korea. His prose is lovely and direct, constantly pointing to the missing or lonely center of his characters' lives.
The title story grounds the collection in loss and connection. A few months after her husband's death, an American woman visits the island where her husband had taken a brief wartime furlough many years before. She takes up residence in a local hotel, and meets a young waiter nicknamed Jim, who is trying to comprehend his brother's recent death that occurred when an American submarine accidentally destroyed a fishing boat. In their separate griefs the widow and the waiter form an off-balance connection. The widow speaks wistfully of her relationship with her husband. More restrained, Jim refuses the terms of his brother's death. The submarine incident is major news at the hotel and on the island, but Jim is able to ignore it, convincing himself that "once escaped from mouths, [the event] was no longer his, now fanned across the air in the realm of static."
Other stories also show various responses to loss. In "Among the Wreckage," a husband and wife set out to find their son who has been accidentally killed by a U.S. test bombing. As they set out toward the disaster site, the husband, Bey, feels the weight of his family's life. Watching his wife soothe her chapped lips with tea, "he saw how she had aged, as if she were shrinking each and every day. He was too--perhaps they would be whittled to the size of a pocket. He thought of death in this way. A diminishing." Yet Bey also views this trip as a means of retrieving what they have lost.
Yoon's characters exist in their own orbits of isolation. In "Faces to the Fire," a solitary shopkeeper, Sojin, finds her world temporarily altered after her childhood love, Kori, briefly returns to town after fifteen years' absence. Sojin reflects on this passage of time, in which tourism has brought significant change. She also considers being left behind, whether by death or life beyond Solla Island and thinks "perhaps there had never been a choice and the town, this island, had kept her. She had been willing. Still was." Sojin recognizes and accepts her solitude.
Throughout this collection the experience of wartime occupation and then tourism weigh heavily on the island inhabitants. Both World War Two and the Korean War repeatedly intrude. In "And We Will Be Here," Miya, the protagonist, imagines a boy who, at the end speaks to her about war. "'Hey Miss,' the boy said. 'War's ending.' He tapped his earlobe. 'Listen.'" Until that moment in the story, the war details were there, but somehow only as a force in the background. At the end, war rumbles back into the center.
Once the Shore is a masterfully-written collection, and best rewards the patient reader. Yoon's stories take time to develop, but carry notes of grace and hope. In "Once the Shore" there is the hint of solace in the way the widow and Jim grieve separately yet together, while "And We Will Be Here," despite its ambivalence, finishes on the promise of war's end.
Monday, May 16, 2011
“Why do you teach?” This is the question I typically ask participants when I begin my Great Books professional development courses. After the teachers introduce themselves, I try to discover what first led them to teaching and what keeps them returning to the classroom.
The answers I hear most often include: “I enjoy kids.” “I like to see the light bulb go on.” “I had a teacher who impacted me when I was in school and I want to do the same.” “It is never boring.” “It forces me to keep on learning.” “It’s fun.” “I want to make an impact on the future.” “It is so satisfying to see a student grow and develop.” “It’s a mission, a calling—I can’t imagine doing anything else.” (It is funny how rarely “salary” comes up as an answer!)
I continue to be impressed by the level of commitment and passion teachers bring to their work. However, with all of the regulations, local and national standards, and other requirements that teachers must adhere to (not to mention the bureaucratic hoops they must often jump through), it amazes me that they get any genuine teaching done.
By genuine teaching I mean those times when the teachers and students become one in the search for meaning and understanding—when the teacher’s questions do not have a correct answer in a teacher’s guide or in the back of her mind, and when the goal is not to teach to the next test or to have students correctly guess the “right” answer. These are moments of true “shared inquiry.”
There will always be a great deal that teachers must pass on to their students, facts and information that they need to know. Teaching our students what to think is a vital part of an educator’s role. However, today more than ever it is also essential to include ample opportunities to teach them how to think. It is a sad fact that many students are not taught how to think until they get to late middle school or high school—and sometimes even to college. By this time some very bad habits of thought have been ingrained.
Teachers who have been trained in and regularly use the Shared Inquiry method of learning have told me time and again that it not only revitalizes their teaching but reconnects them with why they chose teaching in the first place. They tell me that there is a lot less empty talk and more thought going on in their classrooms. They know this because discussions are marked with moments of silent reflection as well as outbursts of passionate opinion. Students speak directly to one another instead of reporting their idea only to the teacher. Answers are supported with evidence from the text, not worded to please the teacher. As one teacher put it, “Shared Inquiry wakes up our minds in the morning and keeps us alert to each other all day.”
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Congratulations to the winners of the annual Common Review Short Story Prize! And thanks to judge Gina Frangello for choosing our winners.
All prize winners, plus two Honorable Mentions, will receive a free copy of The Great Books Foundation Short Story Omnibus. First prize will receive $400 and publication in TCR Online. Second prize will receive $200 and our two third prize winners will receive $75 each.
First Prize: "The Cherry Tree" by Lowell Uda
Second Prize: "Stabbing Michael McDonald" by Dorian Kotsiopoulos
Third Prize: "The Blue Demon of Ikumi" by Kelly Luce and "I Listen to a Breath of Mine" by Matthew Hamity
Honorable Mentions: "Lake Trash" by Dan Moreau and "Softball" by Tobias Amadon Bengelsdorf
From Gina Frangello, on why she chose the winning story:
I chose "The Cherry Tree" for several reasons, one of which is that I thought the subject matter felt genuinely poignant and relevant in an organic, almost casual way (instead of being either defiantly mundane or "straining for Importance" in ways that feel more constructed), but mainly because I felt completely, 100% immersed in the subjective world view of the protagonist. The way he saw things--from the merits of spanking his newly adopted kids who are barely more than toddlers, to the passionate way he feels about his wife--didn't strike me as always "conventionally sympathetic," but as unique, quirky and even at times problematic, but always believable. I felt wholly convinced that he was living his life according to his personal creed. Often, in fiction, even in stories with very strong voice, the sensibility/beliefs of the author creeps in through the cracks, and when a character views something in a different way than the way the author might, there is a sense of the author attempting to convince the reader that the character really believes such-and-such even though (wink-wink at the reader), WE know that's not how it is. In "Cherry Tree," that veil felt completely removed. The world felt fully the characters' and we intensely inhabited the skin of this new husband/father, who is perhaps in over his head.
Friday, May 6, 2011
I was given the subtopic of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (in the Sistine Chapel). While I was trying to find an entry point into the topic, I came across a wonderful book called Michelangelo: A Life on Paper by Leonard Barkan, which thoughtfully details the many intersections between Michelangelo's writing and his artwork. Often, Michelangelo would "doodle" artwork while writing poems; other times, he would write lines of poetry on sheets of paper covered with practice sketches. Toward the end of the book, Barkan analyzes a sheet on which Michelangelo has written a rather heartbreaking poem to someone who has passed away, and instead of finishing the poem, he breaks off mid-line and sketches a hand, pointing at where the final words should be. This mysterious pointing hand and the powerful, focal hands of God and Adam in The Creation of Adam, were the inspiration for my piece.
How to Paint a Ceiling
Begin with the hands. Sketch knuckles and nails,
scratch half-curled fists on errant scraps.
Begin with the hands because they are the hardest thing,
Because Domenico made you practice them
in oil, in chalk, in clay, in stone,
Roughing out the hard lumpy buds of fists
until they finally blossomed;
Because at Santo Spirito you once carved a crucifix
in exchange for time among the corpses at the hospital,
sketching the stilled fingers, the cold cupped palms,
until you learned to trade for warmer subjects,
ones with pink fingers that quickened your brush
and your breath.
Begin with the hands because
they are the only part of you
that does not ache or twinge;
High on the scaffold the sack of your body
dangles like an ugly chandelier, useless, throbbing,
and your bones bend heavy as dull brass—
but your fingers stay lit and flickering. All night
they sweep long strokes above your head
as your dim eyes roll back to watch them work.
Begin with the hands because lately your fate
has hinged upon them, the hands of others:
The sharp arrow of an index finger
peppering the air with privilege
while your own palms flatten in false supplication;
Or those same palms streaking carmine, indigo, cadmium
on the palette of your thighs as your assistants
flap hands like disappointed birds, fetch linseed and water,
insist that you clean yourself (as though
you could ever be truly clean);
Or the rough parenthesis that cups your cheek
and later, while you sleep, pockets your silver;
Or the fumbling fist wrapped around a sliver of red chalk
As you murmur patient praise, hoping
for those red fingers to reach out and print your skin
with hundreds of dim and dusty roses.
And how, when it was too late to tell him, you
pressed ink into paper, hard like penance,
flogging out lines of verse for him until you halted,
dumb and dry.
Instead you drew a hand.
Sketched knuckles and nails,
Scratched a half-curled fist in the margin,
A long finger stabbing the place
where the words curdled, where you didn’t dare.
Begin with the hands thinking regret, regret,
but then remember:
How he leaned close over the chalk-reddened paper
and paused, and paused—
leaving an exquisite ellipsis between you,
a space so possible and so perfect
that it transcended touch.
And how you hung there,
in an ecstasy of waiting. And how you could have hung there
Then begin with the space.
Begin with the space he left between you,
that small distance between skin and skin.
and the rest will follow:
fingers, palms, wrists,
the long swathe of arm
and everything else, everything else will be easy;
wide bold strokes radiating outward,
color and light and force fiercely wheeling around
that inch of nothing,
that pause in plaster,
that space between:
Begin with possibility,
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
For Chicago-area people, there is another episode of The Encyclopedia Show TONIGHT at the Vittum Theater at 7:30 p.m. The theme for Wednesday, May 4 is "Flightless Birds."
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Thanks to everyone who joined us last weekend for Great Books Chicago 2011. The weekend was a success and everyone seemed to enjoy the readings and events, drawing connections between beginnings and history as the days progressed.
We started out on Thursday with a panel on the origin of cities. Chicago-based regional planner Alan P. Mamoser moderated this discussion about beginnings as related to urban growth. Other panelists included Carl Smith, professor at Northwestern University and author of The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City; Charles Daas, who teaches in the urban planning and public policy program at University of Illinois at Chicago and serves as executive director for two local community development corporations; and Ben Schulman, current communications director for the Congress on New Urbanism.
Thursday also included a Shared Inquiry discussion from a selection from Lewis Mumford's The City in History and The Culture of Cities and a talk on Sister Carrie and the Chicago literary movement by Paul Durica. Durica is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and his work has appeared in Tin House, Proximity, Indiana Review, and Mid-American Review, among other places. He is also the founder of the Pocket Guide to Hell Tours and Reenactments.
Friday began early for our teachers signed up for our accompanying Advanced Institute. In the morning, they participated in an advanced training to help with integrating challenging longer works of literature into their curriculum.
For the rest of the participants, Friday's programming began at noon with a welcome lunch and a talk on science and education by Nobel Prize laureate in physics and author of The God Particle, Dr. Leon Lederman. This talk was followed by a discussion of Genesis and at 7:30 p.m. everyone made their way to the Claudia Cassidy Theater in the Cultural Center for a special performance of The Encyclopedia Show. The Encyclopedia Show was open to the public for $8.00 and the theme was "Creation Myths." This award-winning variety show of readings and music featured GBF's own editor, Rachel Claff, who presented a poem on Michaelangelo's "The Creation of Adam." Longtime Great Books supporter and leader, Kathleen Kirk, also presented a poem on the Japanese Creation myth, "Izanagi and Izanami." Kathleen has provided her own recap of the event on her blog, Wait! I Have a Blog?!
On Saturday, GBC kicked off with a discussion of Aldous Huxley's classic novel Brave New World. In the afternoon, we toured Prairie Avenue district, the Glessner House museum, and historic Second Presbyterian Church.
On Sunday, the morning began with a discussion of "Tom Outland's Story," a novella which is actually the middle chapter of Willa Cather's 1925 novel The Professor's House. This was followed by a talk on Hindu creation myths by University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger. Doniger is one of the world's leading scholars of Hindu religion and mythology.
Throughout the weekend, I was struck by the connections to beginnings people made between the texts and events. Whether the beginning of relationships, civilizations, of adulthood, or a literary tradition, there was so much to talk about.