I wouldn’t be much of a book columnist if I didn’t celebrate Alice Munro and her much deserved Nobel Prize for Literature. It surprises me, the number of people who have never read Munro. If you’re one of them, you might start here.
In 2004, Jonathan Franzen made an appeal in The New York Times Book Review to “Read Munro! Read Munro!“:
“Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion. For as long as I’m immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being.”
Todd VanDerWerff wrote a piece for A.V. Club introducing Munro newbies to her work and he captures the essence of her magic and really, the power of anyone who engages in artistic endeavors: “…the entirety of any human being’s life can feel suitably epic when examined under the right scope. Everyone has the potential for grand drama and tragedy, and that’s without ever once leaving home.”
I think about my writing that way sometimes, as a profound exploration of what is and what was, the words excavating my living memory.
Like Franzen, fiction is my religion but memoir sits next to it on the altar. Especially memoir that transcends the writer’s experience and makes me question my own. Like in high school when I read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or more recently Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, and especially Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home. Anyone who knows me is probably sick of me recommending this book but there’s something about Bechdel’s grappling with her past both in words and in drawings that gives me that clichéd “can’t put the book down and can’t stop thinking about it” moment.
I’m not giving anything away by telling you that Fun Home is about Bechdel’s complex relationship with her father. And his suicide. And sexual orientation and dysfunctional families. Because the story is ultimately about what Bechdel does to confront these haunting wounds.
I was in New York City this past weekend and had a chance to see the musical adaptation of Fun Home at the Public Theater. I was flummoxed as to how the subject material would translate to the stage, let alone a musical, but it did–kudos to Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book & lyrics). There are three powerful actresses who portray the author as a child, as a young woman, and as the middle-aged woman Bechdel is now. In the final scene, all three actresses stand on stage together and it is a physical reclamation of the whole self, the culmination of Bechdel’s exploration and healing.
Before the show started, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman sitting next to me. He was well into his 80’s and seemed a bit perturbed that his wife had dragged him to a show he knew nothing about. That made me nervous. I wasn’t sure how he’d respond to the subject material. By the end of the show, he was clutching his wife’s hand and his sobs joined mine. I’m not just recommending you read Fun Home, I implore you to read it, and if you’re anywhere near New York City before December 1st, go see this show.
I couldn’t take Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch with me on my trip because the book (at 784 pages) weighs almost two pounds so instead I brought the much slimmer poetry book Hum, written by fellow Grinder, Jamaal May. This book won the Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books, has some of the most creative cover art I’ve seen all year, as well as one of the best inscriptions: “Dedicated to the interior lives of Detroiters.” With poem titles such as “If They Hand Your Remains to Your Sister in a Chinese Takeout Box,” “The Boy Who Bathes the Dead,” and “How to Get Your Gun Safely Out of Your Mouth,” this isn’t your average poetry collection. May blends the urban and mundane with the glorious.
From “Coming Back For You“:
Tonight the tide will stretch out. Syringes
and splinters of glass will be collected.
Shells and stones that aren’t needed
until morning will be left cleaving beach.
You’ll forget that sound in a month
then remember it on a runway waiting
for your ears to pop.
And from “Macrophobia, Fear of Waiting“:
I love too many women is not the best lead-in
for a conversation that will end
with me telling you I love you
for the first time. And this might not be
the best first date topic. I know this,
but I know it the same way
twelve-year-old me knew the firecracker
in my hand would be a dull burst
lost in the grass if I let it go too soon—
I highly recommend this conversation between May and The Kenyon Review.
Speaking of poetry, The New York Times recently profiled one of my favorite poetry presses, Copper Canyon Press. Up next for me to read is But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram and I know it’s going to be wonderful because Kima Jones said so. And King Me by Roger Reeves because Ray Shea recommends it.
More small press magic with Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail from A Strange Object; The Desert Places from Curbside Splendor; and, In These Times The Home is a Tired Place from The University of North Texas Press, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction 2013.
I met Ron Hogan in New York City and he writes reviews and features for Shelf Awareness. If you like book blogs and I’m thinking you might because you’re reading this column, Shelf Awareness is one of the best.
“Holy shit read this book. Read this book. Here’s how good the book is: I’m a 34 year old college professor and this thing’s about 17 year old high school cheerleaders and the dark jockeying done among young women and I couldn’t get enough of this thing. Couldn’t read it fast enough. The story’s superb, sure, but the writing, my god: if Megan Abbott’s next book isn’t splashed everywhere and made as big a deal of as, say, Gone Girl, I want my money back (you hear me book industry!??!?). This fucking thing’s merciless. The details hardly matter: just get it and read it. If this isn’t the year’s most propulsive read, I’ll eat my boots whole.”
Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season is one of my favorite novels from the past year and so I was thrilled to discover she won Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, the nation’s biggest literary prize for African-American writers. Congrats Attica Locke!
My last day in New York happened to be the same day as the New York Marathon. I walked from my hotel to watch runners make their way along Central Park South to the finish line. It was a perfect day: cool, overcast, and the leaves in the park were in full autumn flair.
Eleven years ago, I ran that very same stretch. I’ll never forget it. The utter physical exhaustion was mitigated only by the thought of my family waiting to celebrate with me at the end, my husband holding our two young daughters, one on each hip. I was running to get to the finish line banner as much as I was running to get to them. This marathon I was alone in the city. My kids, one in middle school and the other in high school, were waiting for me back in California and my ex-husband had just emailed me the day before to tell me he was moving in with this girlfriend.
A female runner made her way down the stretch. The crowd cheered, cowbells clanged. I thought about Bechdel, her three selves standing separately on that stage, and I wanted to let a part of myself go. The part that still looks for the family at the finish line. So I imagined her climbing over the barrier and taking off, running. I clapped for her and then turned around and headed back down 5th Avenue.