Archive for the ‘Reviews and Responses’ category

House of Earth

January 18, 2016

A representative sampling from Woody Guthrie’s only novel, House of Earth:

“And still it was harder than this to see through. The ways and the laws that people used to judge one another did not lie in any one certain mold. The people knew the other people. They knew all the good, the half good, the three-fourths good, and the nine-tenths good. One would have six faults and no good. Another had three good habits and four bad ones. Another had eleven sins and twelve virtues. This one, two vices and one streak of honesty. The next one, fair in some things and no-account in others. The next one, all right when the wind is in the east. The next one was a good man while his wife done his thinking. Another was a hard worker but trailed loose women. And others had their own mixtures of the good and the bad and their makeup was as well known to the others as the times to plow and to plant and to cut and to gather. There were a few people around who fought, drank, gambled, fornicated, trifled, told lies, and cheated but were so outright and so honest about it that Tike and Ella Mae either one would lend them their last coin or feed them or shelter them at any time, because they paid them back sooner than lots of the ones that claimed to be so holy.”

(I am by no means a saint, but I hope I’m not guilty of trifling!)

There are passages like this on every page of this novel, so many, in fact, that sometimes there is barely even any narrative development. I don’t mind. In a way it’s like poetry I think. And I’m glad that Guthrie found an outlet for his creative way of looking at things through songwriting. (The novel ends with the central character singing a song he’s making up as he goes.)

It does read to me as a one-note novel though. Set during the Dust Bowl in the Texas Panhandle, it tells a bit of the story of a young married couple whose great dream is to build a house made of earth — much like adobe — that will withstand both the ravages of nature and the rapaciousness of landlords, big banks, big agriculture, and the like. There are three characters, and each is prone to speechifying in much the same way as the narrator does in the excerpt above. (There is also a baby who makes an appearance at the last minute, but he isn’t given a speech to deliver.) The speeches are about the desire to overcome or the inability to overcome the forces arrayed against the couple (and all proletarians to Guthrie’s point of view). All exemplified by the house made of earth.

There is some speculation about why the novel was never published in Guthrie’s lifetime, the most prominent view being that he had finished it just as the Red Scare was rising in the country and no publisher wanted to handle such a hot item in that environment. (Big publishing?) When the novel was finally published several years ago, it became a New York Times bestseller, with all of the proceeds going to charity.

I’m not sure it’s a great novel, though it should probably stand in the same part of the Pantheon as The Grapes of Wrath, as a companion read.

run away

January 7, 2015

I did something last night that I haven’t done in a long, long time. I gave up on a book. I just stopped reading it, in the middle of a chapter, even in the middle of a sentence.

I’d been forcing myself to keep at it for a few days, always thinking that it was going to get better or somehow tie in and make sense, but all it seemed to be doing was getting deeper into . . . catechism.

The book is Running & Being by George Sheehan. I’ve been reading a lot of books by runners lately (and for the most part, I’ve learned that they — at least the elites — are not the kind of people I want to know) and I saw this book the last time I was at Powell’s in Portland. The title suggested that it touched on two of the three things that are important (writing being the third?).

Was I surprised. This is an old book in the field, first published in 1978, and I should have guessed from the tagline that it was self-congratulatory: “The book that got the whole world running.”

From what I could see (and I got nearly half way through it) Sheehan simply spouts airy platitudes, quotes disparate philosophers out of context (to show his erudition?), takes conventional wisdom and asserts the opposite (in a way that I suppose he believes is shocking), and then delivers a lesson in Catholic teaching to sum it all up. He struck me as the kind of person who had a lot of opinions that he thought everyone would benefit from, but he never had an audience.

This book was not about running. I think you could literally (and I think I used that word correctly here) substitute “swimming” or “glass blowing” or “bank robbing” every time the word “running” came up and not affect the drift of the ideas.

I could probably scrape together a few more complaints I have about the book, but I don’t think it is worth the bother. It’s gone to my giveaway shelf, and good riddance.

But what to read now?

better left unsaid

September 11, 2013

“To me the best novels are the ones that don’t explain everything, but give the reader just enough hints about the full story to keep the reader questioning and thinking about the story long after it’s finished.”

~ Peter Anderson, in a interview about his novel Wheatyard

Peter’s quote above just about perfectly sums up my attitude toward fiction writing. If the experience of fiction is collaborative, equal parts brought to bear by the writer and the reader, which I think is not only true but inevitably true, then the best writers leave plenty for the reader’s imagination to fill in.

Peter’s novel, about the summer of an unmoored business graduate and his encounter and growing fascination with an inscrutable novelist leaves plenty unsaid, which gives the reader room to expand and enrich the story with speculation and musing. It has been said that every person’s life is a complete book, and the best we can hope to know of another is a few pages. That could be the theme of Wheatyard the novel and the deliberate goal of Wheatyard the protagonist. While Peter has a keen eye for telling detail, he doesn’t flood the narrative with pointless descriptions or dumb it down by telling the reader everything that needs to be known. The reader, just like the unmoored graduate who is the narrator, is invited to speculate on the things left unsaid, to fill in the story that is untold, and in the end, to complete the tale in whatever way is most satisfying (including the tantalizing “satisfaction” of never really ever being able to know).

Both of the long-time readers of this humble blog know of my aversion to what has been called Nancy Drew Moments. Peter is certainly not guilty of this writing sin. He gives his readers plenty of berth for providing their own details, and I think this approach is exactly what the writer Robert Boswell speaks of in his non-fiction book on creative writing, The Half-Known World. (Among the questions Boswell asks in his writing guide is what your character would think of you if the two of you met in a bar. Know this and know your character better. Tellingly, Wheatyard and the narrator have several meetings in bars in the novel.) Boswell suggests that the reader be given ample space to fill in details. Peter’s narrator spends the novel trying to learn more about Wheatyard the character, for Wheatyard is almost pathologically guarded about the details of his life, and if the narrator perhaps never learns more than a few pages of Wheatyard’s life, he is left with the engaging emptiness that he can fill, or not.

It’s almost inevitable that the reader of Wheatyard assumes the same role as the narrator of the novel. Wheatyard the character is a novelist (unpublished and perhaps even unpublishable). So, too, is Peter Anderson (though, of course, published), and as a reader I was trying to peer between the lines to see what details of his own life might be slipping into his fiction. It’s a fair and often-asked question to wonder how autobiographical a novel is. And while I know that Peter has far more in common with his narrator than with Wheatyard the character, the built-in quest for more details about that writer spilled into my experience reading Peter Anderson the writer.

Which is informed by the fact that Peter and I have been long-hand correspondents for more than a year. (Anyone remember letter writing?) I also regularly read his blog, Pete Lit, and exchange witty barbs on that great social networking site that will remain unnamed. (Speculate as you will about that one!) Wheatyard is a novel I will return to, for while it doesn’t necessarily tell you everything, there is plenty in it to chew on and muse over.

Wheatyard is available from Kuboa Press.

The Here Within There

April 8, 2013

“To me, a road map is the printed lyrics to a siren’s song where highways and rivers are like stanzas, and the little circles indicating towns are notes — some flat, some sharp, a few off-key.”

from Here, There, Elsewhere

by William Least Heat-Moon

I used to think I was peculiar for my love of maps and the desire they spur in me, but I’ve come to see enough references like this in my reading to understand that there is a certain mindset that loves to sit before them and plan imaginary trips, guessing what the road will be like and what might be seen along the way.

Is it the same for you?

Jim Harrison ~ rescue writer

September 6, 2011

On a recent road trip I had the opportunity to listen to three novellas by Jim Harrison. (The collection was The Farmer’s Daughter.) This is the third road trip that has been made immeasurably better by the fiction of Jim Harrison.

I’ve seen Harrison referred to as a “rescue writer.” (It may have been on the message boards over at Poets & Writers.) By “rescue writer” he was cited as the kind of writer you can read after you’ve read something not particularly good or satisfying. His prose is so good that you feel rescued from the junk you’ve just finished reading.

Harrison is, to me, a profoundly good story teller. He creates credible characters with depth and interest, full of humanity, frailty, and drive. And most of all, loneliness. He puts them in lives that are as ragged as any human’s can be and most humans’ are. And he continues to deliver, page after page.

I don’t foresee another road trip any time soon, which may mean I’ll have to check out one of his physical books from my local library and read it with my eyes (rather than my ears).

Which leads to a question I’ve sometimes asked myself: can you say you’ve “read” a book if you listened to it?

Spell it backward: dog in search of dog

August 30, 2011

I’m currently reading Iris Murdoch’s novel The Green Knight (the second to last of her 26+ novels and so the second to last in my quest to read them all in sequence). In it a dog named Anax desperately wants to get back to his former master. He’s been living with four nice women who care for him, but they cannot replace the love he felt for his original owner (who rescued him from the pound). The poor, forlorn dog bides its time and makes an escape when a door is left open too long. Anax then goes on a journey through London that is, I’m sure, supposed to mirror a human’s search for the divine (not necessarily the western “God” everyone thinks of but, in Murdoch’s cosmology, more of a greater goodness), which is pretty much a theme in all of her works.

We get some insight into the dog’s nature, and they we join him on his flight:

“He did not believe that his master rejected him or found him unworthy, indeed he could not imagine this. Nor did he imagine his master might be dead . . . Only lately had he realised that there would be no return and that it was for him, Anax, to seek his Lord, who might be somewhere in need, perhaps captive too, waiting, deprived and unconsoled. Nor did Anax doubt the authentic authority of the magnetism which would, when the time came, draw him back to his master . . . If he could only run towards the beloved he would be with him, nothing more was needed than that of flinging himself into the great void of that dreadful absence . . . Once he had started Anax found that he knew his way perfectly well, he was guided . . . Suddenly the spirit that directed him had seemed to fail . . . Perhaps his loss of certainty was simply due to exhaustion . . . He ran on quickly, then walked, hoping still to regain the magnetic message, along a road which prompted no recognition, where railings enclosed the front gardens of big houses . . . Anax was now completely lost. He hurried on, then wandered randomly on, trying to recognise some landmark or be guided in some direction, but now he had given up hope, he had lost all sense of orientation. The magnetic beam was quenched, the purposeful certainty, the energy, which had made him able to run so far and so fast, had vanished from him. He felt tired, hungry, and now frightened.”

And so it goes. He must fight for a crust of bread. He meets kind people and unkind ones. He is naked for he wasn’t wearing his collar. He faces evil in the form of a fearless cat that attacks him. He experiences hunger, fear, doubt, despair. All in his quest to regain his master. Much like the dark night of the soul so many mystics experience when they lose touch with their divine, which is, of course, what Murdoch is trying to depict in this passage.

Not coincidentally, Anax’s former master had given him away so that he might complete a spiritual quest of his own; he intends to join a monastery.

Shall I tell you how it ends? Anax is found by someone who was not even looking for him. The man — the actual Green Knight of this story — recognizes him and returns him to the four women, for which Anax is grateful. Will he ever be reunited with his former master? I must read on to learn that.

Literary tour groups in London actually retrace Anax’s journey, based on the many clues and cues that Murdoch includes in the passage. No reports on whether they find their divine however.

in which I speak of Nancy Drew moments

July 5, 2011

In a recent long weekend involving hundreds of miles of road travel (yet another distraction from my writing time) I had the occasion to listen to Sue Grafton’s novel Q is for Quarry. I’ve listened to many of her alphabet novels through the years; they’re a reliable story for listening to. The plots are compelling and the characterization, while sometimes over baked, is engaging.

So I’m a bit uncomfortable writing this post since I want to make some complaints about the novel. Normally, when I find problems with novels and post about them here, I don’t identify which I’m talking about. It doesn’t seem charitable in our business to be finding fault with each other. I think my complaint in this case, however, is with the editor not with the writer.

I’ve mentioned before the unfortunate phenomenon of Nancy Drew moments, in which a writer interrupts the narrative to give an inventory of what a particular character is wearing. I generally consider this to be more noise than signal; it’s hardly ever important to know what a character is wearing. (I usually promptly forget how the person was described and get on with the story.) Yet this novel is full of these interruptions. Just about every single time a character is presented, Grafton gave a run down of their clothes. In a couple of cases, these were helpful as part of character development: the vain character, the slob character. But most of the time it just read like a sudden halt in the plot. A needless sudden halt in the plot. A jarring, needless, sudden halt in the plot.

There were also countless incidents of elegant variations throughout the novel. Granted, these alphabet novels are narrated in first person, and perhaps Grafton wants her protagonist to be verbose in some cases, but it all sounded clumsy and affected. The protagonist “availed myself of the facilities” (went to the bathroom) and other such overwritten statements that didn’t seem like necessary euphemisms or enlightening character quirks. I was cringing nearly every mile as I listened to the story on my road trip.

But as I said above, I think my complaint is with the editor rather than the writer. I’ve discussed before what I call the “successful author syndrome” in which an editor doesn’t want to mess with the writing of a commercially successful author (or can’t be bothered to put in the effort?). But surely any writer serious about the craft would welcome at least the suggestions of an editor serious about that craft. I imagine if I submitted a novel written like this an editor would spill red ink all over it. I would want my editor to spill red ink all over it.

I continue to be baffled by what I see so commonly in successful fiction. Grafton, I’m sure, can write better than this, but is she being pushed to?

Fifty pages

April 17, 2011

Imagine this: You will examine one square inch of a painting and decide from that whether you want to see the whole painting or not.

Or this: You will listen to ten seconds of a symphony and decide from that whether you want to hear the entire symphony or not.

Seems a foolish way to approach a work of art. At least, it does to me. Such things must be appreciated wholly. They are created as integrated units, each part contributing in some way toward the overall goal, impression, creation. (Or with a composer like Beethoven, an entire career of composition integrated and informing the later works.)

So I am astonished when I hear people say they will give a new novel fifty pages to hook them or give it up.


A novel is only completely understood (if then) after you reach The End. You can’t say you’ve truly experienced the novel until you’ve taken in the whole of it. A beginning can’t make sense without its ending. A writer (a good writer, a serious writer whatever the genre) integrates all of the parts of the work to feed the ending, to inform the whole. Everything builds. Everything belongs. Everything leads. And as is often the case, no single part can make thorough sense without the experience of the whole. (And even then, it may take several readings for the whole to make sense, but people who disdain reading books more than once — they exist out there, believe me! — are another sore subject for me.) The ending casts a light back on all of the pages preceding it. One cannot be appreciated without the other.

How to explain this fifty-page sampling phenomenon? Is it just short attention spans among the readers? (Maybe they should only read short stories.) Is it the nature of the books they favor? Books that aren’t complicated or insightful, that can be read for surface impressions only? Is it the calibre of the writing they are judging rather than the story? Is it the reader’s freakishly busy life that doesn’t allow them time for whole books unless they are instantly accessible? Where is the savor in that? The pause and reflection? What is it? And where did this “sampling” attitude come from? This attitude seems like an insult to the writer and even an insult to the intelligence of the reader who holds it. It seems like a lack of respect. It seems specious. And why the first fifty pages? If you’re going to merely sample a work, why not at least learn what is best to sample and give that a try?

Some might argue that the first fifty pages of a novel ought to be the best pages, that the writer must put every bit of talent into those pages, and thus the work can be more or less judged on that. I don’t think so. Or rather, I think all of the novel must have every bit of talent worked into it. And again, a part does not equal the whole. Nor, I think, can you judge the whole based on the part. When I pick up a novel, I feel as though I have entered a relationship with the writer, one that I am obligated to see to the end. I will give up several hours of my life to your work, and you, hard-working writer, will give me your creativity and insight and story telling skills. You’ve held up your end of the bargain; now I will honor my obligation. Reading a novel is not like speed dating.

I recently read the novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I saw it mentioned in a blog I respect (Sharp Sand), and I began reading about it as I waited for the book to become available at my library. One thing I read several times about the novel is that you must push through the first fifty pages in order to begin enjoying the work, that it is turgid going at the beginning. I didn’t find this to be the case; I was captivated from the start. It is a novel of ideas and philosophy. It is a novel that is best read multiple times. The references it makes to literature, philosophy, class struggle, and history are mostly lost on me, though I will pursue them. It is a novel that has a bittersweet yet completely correct ending, one that I couldn’t have imagined without all of the ideas dealt with throughout the story and one that I certainly couldn’t have foreseen from the first fifty pages.

Imagine, though, a reader who slavishly followed the first-fifty-page rule with this novel. This great work of writing and thought and story telling and characterization would have been lost to this kind of reader. What an absolute waste! (It is well after the first fifty pages that the odd title gets explained, and then, of course, it makes perfect sense, elegant sense.)

Can you imagine picking up any novel by Faulkner and adhering to this fifty-page rule? His works require effort to appreciate. And they certainly can’t be judged through sampling. Or one of my favorites: Iris Murdoch. She is another writer of ideas. Her plots are sometimes only there as the structure to hang ideas and complex characters on. They often are confusing and contorted in the first half, building to who knows where at the time. I think the same could be said about most novels in one way or another.

Approaching a novel is not like approaching a box of assorted chocolates. At least to me it’s not.

*   *   *

The thumbnail image above is a tiny corner from the painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth. You can see the whole painting by going to that link. Could you have judged the worthiness of the painting from the thumbnail?


March 3, 2011

I’d had the old Joseph Conrad novel Victory on my to-be-read shelf for more than a year. I had read it once before, years before, many years before apparently, but I barely remembered anything of the story or characters. All I could specifically recall was the description of a group of musicians who were “murdering the silence.” I liked that image, and it stuck with me. The only other thing I remembered from the novel was a reference to Black Diamond Bay. But those two references (and my period of youthful infatuation with Conrad novels) were enough to convince me that I truly had read it once before.

Some months ago I took the novel off the shelf and put it on my bedside table. I began reading it only to be interrupted by some Dostoyevsky demands (the reading group I’m in has taken on the gloomy Russians). So I could only move through Victory in small bits. But with my gloomier responsibilities temporarily addressed, I found sufficient free time to plow through Conrad.

And yet, I could be persuaded that I had never read this novel before. None of it was familiar. Okay, the missing revolver struck a chord. And the inscrutable Chinese man. But I didn’t remember the plot at all. Nor the gloomy characters. Nor the gloomy ending. (Winter gloom!)

Somewhere in an ancient journal I have no doubt written the date that I finished reading Victory the first time. (I keep a written record of every book I’ve read, and I’m sure someday someone will point to that list and be able to say “And this explains everything, your Honor!”) Yet if I didn’t have that list, I might not have believed I’d read the novel. I came to it nearly completely fresh and innocent.

It makes me wonder how many other novels I have read and totally forgotten. Can you even say you’ve read a novel if you don’t remember any of it? And further, how many times must you read a novel (a serious novel anyway) before you can claim to have really read it? I’ve been through Philip Roth’s novel The Ghostwriter at least twenty times, and yet the last time through I still found things I had never noticed before. I’ve asserted that you can’t really begin to understand good fiction until you’ve read a book at least twice. And if you’ve only read a work once, can you say that you’ve read it at all?

Next up in the Kindle queue ~ Tinkers

January 31, 2011

I finished Alice Adams today, the last day of the month. This is my third time through it, and I’ll likely read it again. Much of it is dated, some of it is quite dated, but it still tells a good story, borrowed as it is from the Old Testament.

Now onto the next novel. I just purchased Tinkers by Paul Harding. I know little about it beyond a precis of the plot and the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize. I have this notion that the books that win the major prizes must have done so due to some worthiness, and about three quarters of the time this proves out. (Alice Adams won the Pulitzer. I first came to Iris Murdoch because I saw her on the Booker list.)

So we shall see.