Something to Hold by Katherine Schlick Noe

Full disclosure: I first met Katherine Schlick Noe some years ago at a social event (she works with my wife) where I learned she was writing a children’s novel, Something to Hold, which has just been released. Now, I don’t normally read children’s fiction but, since making her acquaintance, I was naturally curious to read her first novel, and can say that even as an adult I was completely won over by the book’s strong sense of place and emotional register. Here is my review.

The time is 1962 and 11-year-old Kitty has just moved with her family to an Indian reservation in central Oregon. They have relocated so her father can work as a forester for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, fighting fires in the nearby Cascades. Her brothers quickly find playmates through little league baseball, but Kitty feels threatened by an early encounter with some of the local reservation kids and she wonders if she’ll ever make friends. She dreads the thought of going to school with Jewel and Raymond, the ones who had intimidated her, but as Kitty gets to know the kids at school she begins to see another side of her intimidators. She also begins to question the stereotypical views of her off-reservation church friends and the bias in her teacher’s Columbus Day curriculum. By the end of the book Kitty has grown in confidence, and her courage is put to the test by both a wildfire and a tense scene with the stepfather of Jewel and Raymond. The dry landscape of central Oregon vividly backdrops the social landscape and emotional journey of a girl facing up to her fears, insecurities and preconceptions. This memorable coming-of-age novel set in the Northwest should have broad appeal to  late elementary and middle school readers.

Scott

2011 Heavyweights – Literally

Reading is generally understood to be good for the brain. And now The Everett Herald just ran an article about how exercise helps the brain as we age. So what better time to round-up some books that give you a workout just from hefting their brick-like mass. OK, the article’s emphasis is on cardiovascular activity, not doing curls with hardcovers – but free weight training has perks of its own. You eBook readers are only cheating yourselves!

Here are some of the heavyweight contenders for this year’s fiction crown. At over 900 pages we have:

           The Crippled God by Steven Erikson   (913 pgs)

           1Q84 by Haruki Murakami   (925 pgs)

           A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles    (955 pgs)

           The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss   (993 pgs)

 And tipping the scales at over 1000 pages each are:

           A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin   (1016 pgs)

           The Instructions by Adam Levin   (1030 pgs)

           Reamde by Neal Stephenson   (1044 pgs)

           Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas   (1133 pgs)

Are there fat novels from 2011 I’ve overlooked? What is the fattest book you’ve ever read?  And what’s your take on the long novel in this age of info bombardment and one-sentence tweets?

Scott

Art, Faith, Politics, Prejudice – and the Mirror of Serendipity

Amy Waldman’s acclaimed debut novel The Submission came out in mid-August – only weeks before the country was about to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the public opening of the National September 11 Memorial. The timing couldn’t have been better, as the book deals with a competition to build a memorial on the site of ground zero. The competition is contentious to begin with but turns uglier when the winning architect of the contest is discovered to be a Muslim American and the judges seek to retract their decision. For more about this thought-provoking  new novel, click the image above to read reviews in the catalog.

While browsing in the fiction collection this week, I chanced upon a book that appears to be a reverse image of The Submission, written by a French novelist in 1984.  Here is what the book jacket says about The House of the Prophets by Nicolas Saudray:

Marsania, a fictitious Middle Eastern country, is the exotic setting for this haunting and powerful contemporary tale. The House of the Prophets is the moving story of one man’s dream of interfaith peace and tolerance endangered by religious fanaticism and the equally violent response it evokes.

At once beautiful and dangerous, vivid and chilling, Marsania is a complex, pluralistic society, seething with religious and revolutionary turmoil. The government has established an architectural competition for a mosque to be called “The House of the Prophets.” Gabriel, a young, idealistic architect and member of the Christian community, returns to his Moslem homeland from the United States, where he has studied and begun a promising career. He is eager to enter the competition, envisioning the new mosque as a symbol of harmony in the Middle East.

Yet, upon his arrival, confronted by the rising tide of turbulence in Marsania, Gabriel finds himself a stranger in his own land. His friends, his family, his way of life are being ripped apart in an explosion of terror – an explosion that threatens Gabriel’s life, and could shatter his dream; for, because he is Christian, his design for The House of the Prophets could be rejected.

Through his quest for a better understanding, Gabriel is helped – or hindered – by a strong cast of unforgettable characters: a bohemian Jewish painter, a girl from a mountain tribe, a Christian millionaire, a Moslem fundamentalist, all taking part in the country’s destiny.

I’ve yet to read either book, but reading about The Submission, and my serendipitous encounter in the stacks with Saudray’s novel have added to my reflective mood as I ponder the opening of our new memorial.

Scott

Freedom Lovers— Try The Pale King

Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”*  –David Foster Wallace    

Many readers in Everett have checked out Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom since it came out ten months ago.  The book was extensively reviewed and promoted (even by Oprah, with whom Franzen once had a major falling-out), and Time magazine even crowned him “Great American Novelist” in a cover story – all of which helped bring the book a large audience.

But did you know there are many strong thematic parallels between Freedom and David Foster Wallace’s new book The Pale Kingor that the authors were good friends?

In a recent piece in the New Yorker†, Franzen writes about taking an adventurous vacation that also involved reflecting on the death of his friend and the spreading of Wallace’s ashes. D.T. Max again touches on the friendship between Franzen and Wallace in his own long NewYorker article* published in 2009, a short time after Wallace’s death. Max’s essay offers fascinating background about  Wallace’s unfinished novel (as it existed at that time) and the challenges he faced in changing his writing style.  The book was only released this April.

Though friendship does not mean identical interests, the more I thought about it, the more an affinity between their recent books began to seem unavoidable. The Pale King, for example, has the young Leonard Steyck, who can be seen as an exaggerated version of Freedom’s self-sacrificing and conscientious Walter Berglund. And Wallace’s Chris Fogle and Franzen’s Patty Berglund both put themselves, quite mercilessly, through the wringer of self-analysis. Franzen even directly addresses boredom, one of The Pale King’s major themes, when Walter repeatedly endures the conversation of an ultra-boring friend of Patty’s.

The major characters in both of these books are doing their damnedest to improve their messy lives, to learn from their mistakes, and to overcome their bad habits. And Franzen and Wallace invest them with an uncommon sincerity while also steering clear of the swamp of sentimentality, the seduction of schadenfreude, and the pitfalls of the overt morality tale. They keep the focus tight on their characters as they wallow uncomfortably through dilemmas or crises of self-examination on their way toward a pale self-betterment, heightened awareness, or not-so-simple understanding.

Though the subject matter can be kind of heavy, the writing in both cases is frequently captivating and humorous. The weave of storytelling in Wallace’s book is distinctly different than Franzen’s, but no less thought-provoking or engaging. Both writers handle language with fluency and flair, but they feel that fiction must do something more, that it must attempt to find solutions to complex and intractable real-life problems.

As Wallace’s character Chris Fogle might say—I don’t think I’m explaining this very well. But if you are among the millions who enjoyed Freedom, you might want to take a look at its philosophical soulmate, The Pale King.

Articles referred to above:

* The Unfinished” by D. T. Max, New Yorker piece on David Foster Wallace  [full-text].

† “Farther Away” by Jonathan Franzen, New Yorker  [abstract only; or full-text for a fee.  You can also read the article in our print copy of the April 18th issue, or by logging in to our e-sources ProQuest or Ebsco]. 

For additional reading and commentary on The Pale King and Wallace, take a look at the symposium in issue 24 of The Quarterly Conversation, and check out the taped  panel discussion from the 2011 PEN World Voices Festival.

See also my previous posts on Freedom and The Pale King.

Scott

The Pale King Goes to D.C.

Choosing what to read for vacation travel is always a challenge. Mostly, I find myself feeling guilty if the reading material has nothing to do with the place I’m visiting. I mean, you can read anywhere – why have your nose in just any book when you’re off exploring someplace new? But you want something that will engage you while you wait around in airports, and for the seemingly endless hours of being sandwiched into your coach class seat on long flights.

These thoughts had me considering A Week at the Airport, which Richard reviewed recently, but the title alone is enough to give me the willies. Then I was remembering Ben Lerner’s astonishing, fractured poetry collection Mean Free Path, and his incorporation of ready-made phrases that will be familiar to anyone who has securely fastened a seatbelt upon command or otherwise spent time confined in “the cabin.” And I don’t think I’ll be able to catch a flight anytime soon without thinking of a character from The Imperfectionists who copes with air travel by slipping into what she calls her “travel coma.”

But I needed something different for my first trip to Washington, D.C. The Pulitzer-winning biography of George Washington by Ron Chernow came to mind, but then I began to wonder if something by Hunter S. Thompson might be a better fit for the D.C. political climate (or even Alice in Wonderland). I still had a week before traveling, so I let the question drop until an email announced one of my previous hold requests had come in: The Pale King – David Foster Wallace’s new novel about the lives of IRS form processors. A book about employees who suffer such extreme ennui that they receive training in boredom survival. What reading could be better aligned with the angst of air travel and a tax season trip to D.C.?

The book seemed an even more auspicious choice when, in the first few pages, I found myself deep in Leopold Bloom country, following the carefully detailed, cut-jump thoughts of an aspiring tax examiner who is on a flight to take his CPA exam. Among pre-test anxiety, queasiness at the claw-like hands of his elderly seatmate, and curiosity at the lack of facial expression on the illustrations in the seatback safety card, is this observation about clouds:

Above and below were a different story, but there was always something disappointing about clouds when you were inside them; they ceased to be clouds at all. It just got really foggy.

And then there’s this, as the plane begins its descent over an interstate highway:

…light traffic crawling with a futile pointless pathos you could never sense on the ground. What if it felt as slow to actually drive as it looked from this perspective? It would be like trying to run underwater. The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception’s objects. Sylvanshine tried to envision the small plane as seen from the ground, a cruciform shape against the old-bathwater color of cloud cover, its lights blinking complexly in the rain.

Five hundred pages of this may or may not be the answer for the irritations of traveling by air to D.C. But what better place to patiently delve into a painstaking wordsmith’s unflinching account of boredom and taxes – and to contemplate, too, a little, that one other certainty in life?

Wallace is best known for Infinite Jest, his influential, kaleidoscopic 1996 doorstop which acquired something of a cult following. The DFW mystique was further heightened when he took his own life in 2008. The Pale King is the big book he was working on when he killed himself, and it has now been published as an unfinished novel. It’s likely to be considered one of the big books of the year.

Scott

Pre-pub Buzz – NW Style

The Northwest is lucky to have many popular and active authors living in our area. Readers eagerly anticipate the steady stream of titles from these well-known writers, but every year or two also brings the announcement of a big new regional talent, often with a lot of pre-publication excitement and publicity. Last year, the big-new-Northwest-author buzz went to Karl Marlantes with his long-brewing Vietnam-war novel, Matterhorn. This year, anticipation is building for Jonathan Evison’s West of Here, scheduled to be released on February 15th, but already available for holds in the library catalog.            

The novel is set in a fictional town on the Olympic Peninsula and it moves back and forth in time from the 1890s to the present day, covering such subjects as pioneering expeditions into the jagged Olympic mountains, an early settler’s dream of establishing a commonwealth colony, and plans for damming the Elwha River (and later for its removal). The modern-day chapters reflect a more woebegone sensibility, and are populated by Bigfoot-watchers, beer-guzzlers, ex-cons and environmentalists. 

According to Publishers Weekly, “Evison does a terrific job at creating a sense of place as he skips back and forth across the century, cutting between short chapters to sustain a propulsive momentum while juggling a sprawling network of plots and a massive cast of characters real enough to walk off the page. A big novel about the discovery and rediscovery of nature, starting over, and the sometimes piercing reverberations of history, this is a damn fine book.”

Evison won a Washington State Book Award for his previous novel, All About LuluWest of Here is poised to bring him much broader recognition. Find out more here.

Scott

Sounds of Silence

The earth-jarring noise of the ongoing roadwork in front of the Main Library is not the only thing that inspired this blog post. A publishing micro-storm has been swirling around the unlikely subject of noise and the quest for silence. The books below were all published in the past two years. I’ve given stars to what I think are the best of the bunch.

*A Book of Silence
by Sara Maitland
In this fascinating personal journey and thorough exploration of silence, Maitland covers everything from solo sailors and adventurers to Christian hermits, Zen philosophy and the Romantic poets. She undergoes a 40-day period of silence, pursues her subject to the Sinai desert and the Isle of Skye, and eventually moves alone to a cottage in a remote valley in Galloway. Maitland identifies eight major characteristics pertaining to silence, including some unsettling ones. Ultimately, she sees silence not as a negative or constraining condition, but as a positive presence that heightens experience and offers an ineffable sense of connection to the natural world.

*In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise
by George Prochnik
Prochnik seeks to understand a world that grows more deafening by the day.  His extensive investigation eloquently takes on such things as: car-stereo competitions; traffic noise; retail soundtracks and mall design; the neuroscience of pleasing and annoying frequencies; soundproofing and noise abatement; the acoustic architecture of places of worship; the deaf community at Gallaudet University; and the silent world of Trappist monks. Prochnik’s solution is not so much to fight noise as to create more quiet spaces.

One Square Inch of Silence
by Gordon Hempton
Hempton is an acoustic ecologist who has recorded many natural environments and he claims to have found the quietest place in America – a spot in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park. He has created an organization called One Square Inch with a goal of establishing a law that would “prohibit all aircraft from flying over our most pristine national parks.” To promote his cause, Hempton sets out on a cross-country road trip to Washington, D.C.

Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence
by George Foy
Suddenly driven to despair by the noise of the Manhattan subway, Foy begins to track the decibel levels in his daily environment and becomes consumed with the quest for absolute silence. He tries to drown urban sounds in his bathtub, experiments with noise-canceling headphones, visits sensory-deprivation tanks, and seeks silence a mile underground in a nickel mine. He also explores the scientific, historical, and physiological aspects of silence and sound.

Listening Below the Noise: a Meditation on the Practice of Silence
by Anne D. Leclaire
Leclaire recounts her practice of being silent two days each month. Her focus is on gaining a better understanding of herself and reconnecting with nature. She also describes the sometimes negative responses of others to this practice and provides recommendations for those who are also tempted to institute silent days.

The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: a Book About Noise
by Garret Keizer
Keizer’s book looks at the human history of noise and takes a particular interest in noise as power, both personal and political. He calls on individuals to be more conscientious regarding the noise they contribute. In addition to a bibliography, index, and extensive notes, Keizer also includes a timeline of noise history, decibel ranges for everyday situations, noise-related organizations, and suggestions for resolving noise disputes.

And lastly, straying just a bit from our theme:

*No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” 
by Kyle Gann
One of the most controversial pieces of twentieth-century music, both praised and ridiculed, is John Cage’s 4’33” – the length of time it takes to play a composition in which no note is sounded. One of Cage’s goals was to make listeners more aware of everyday environmental sounds. Gann provides an engaging overview of Cage’s life, influences, and creative output. He highlights his work for prepared piano, his interest in minimalism, and the use of chance as a compositional technique. He compares the title piece to paintings by Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg and looks at Cage’s artistic friendships with 12-tone serialist Arnold Schoenberg, dancer/partner Merce Cunningham, and Zen teacher D. T. Suzuki among others. Whatever your stance on 4’33”, Gann’s book is insightful and ear-opening.

Scott

Freedom

Jonathan Franzen achieved notoriety almost a decade ago when he and Oprah had their falling out over The Corrections. I took a pass then, but the extensive fanfare surrounding his new book, Freedom, drew me in this time, and it’s quite likely I’ll soon find myself turning the pages of his other books.

I’m not sure why, but I almost liked Freedom better in hindsight than I did while reading it – even though I was compelled to get back to the book quickly during the week or so it took to finish it. The novel is long and I was a bit impatient with some of the subplots, but looking at the work as a whole, each of them is important with little that could have been easily cut. Franzen has structured the book carefully, and the writing rings true across the broad variety of characters and subject matter, revealing the inherent complexities of modern-day life. A number of parallels come up in his multiple-plot storyline, but in each case they are handled with integrity regarding their particular situations and circumstances. Nothing feels unduly forced.

Freedom is set in contemporary America and follows the lives of the four members of the Berglund family over the course of the past 30 years. Its major concerns are the personal choices they make regarding family, love, friendship, infidelity, and work, as well as the threats of overpopulation and environmental degradation. Franzen’s characters are a richly imagined and guilt-wracked bunch, and the reader accompanies them through the travails of their various decisions. “Mistakes were made” is an underlying refrain, and the understanding of freedom itself is laced with disappointment and regret.

That Oprah has again endorsed Franzen and his new novel is perfectly suited to a book about complicated strivings and untidy resolutions. This may well be the big American book of the year – it is ambitious, memorable, and has important things to say.

For more reviews and commentary, see the Complete Review.

Scott

The Menagerie & the Literary Artist

First published in 1922, Franz Kafka’s brilliant story “A Hunger Artist” focuses on a psychologically complex and imperfect man whose profession is to publicly fast in a cage for 40 days at a stretch. But public interest in these events begins to diminish over the years. Toward the end, the hunger artist finds himself reduced to circus work, and his cage is set up along a gangway where he is little more than an impediment to the crowd that daily troops past him on its way to the animal menagerie:

He might fast as much as he could, and he did so; but nothing could save him now, people passed him by. Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting!  Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it. The fine placards grew dirty and illegible, they were torn down; the little notice board telling the number of fast days achieved, which at first was changed carefully every day, had long stayed at the same figure, for after the first few weeks even this small task seemed pointless to the staff; and so the artist simply fasted on and on, as he had once dreamed of doing, and it was no trouble for him, just as he had always foretold, but no one counted the days, no one, not even the artist himself, knew what records he was already breaking, and his heart grew heavy. And when once in a while some leisurely passer-by stopped, made merry over the old figure on the board, and spoke of swindling, that was in its way the stupidest lie ever invented by indifference and inborn malice, since it was not the hunger artist who was cheating, he was working honestly, but the world was cheating him of his reward.

One of the notable things about Kafka’s work is the way his clear and precise language invites multiple interpretations. Coming to this story all these years after it was written, I found myself automatically substituting the literary artist in place of Kafka’s performer. Suffice it to say, things do not end well for the hunger artist. In this era of widespread visual, interruptive and multimedia diversions, one hopes that the literary artist – and the practice of engaged literacy – can somehow avoid a similar fate.

________

My previous post was on wordless books, and the following juxtaposition perhaps serves as a fitting coda to that piece and to the dire musings above.

In reading Kafka’s The Complete Stories, I didn’t get around to John Updike’s introduction until I was done. In his description of “The Metamorphosis,” in which traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up as an insect, Updike points out Kafka’s concern that no depiction of the insect should appear on the cover of the book, not even at a distance – that it would shut off the reader’s sympathy for this conflicted creature. Updike goes on to describe the dark humor and pathos of Gregor’s plight as he and his family try to adjust to his situation:

Later, relegated by the family to the shadows of a room turned storage closet, he responds to violin music and creeps forward, covered with dust and trailing remnants of food, to claim his sister’s love. Such scenes could not be done except with words. In this age that lives and dies by the visual, “The Metamorphosis” stands as a narrative absolutely literary, able to exist only where language and the mind’s hazy wealth of imagery intersect.

Maybe it’s not too late for the literary artist after all.

Scott

Wordless Books*

When it comes to reading, I’m a literalist.

Reading is done by a reader who decodes a sequence of written symbols – a condition notably absent in other narrative media such as audiobooks or film. 

So what’s a literalist to do when confronted by a book without words? Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is an essentially wordless piece of narrative sequential art that I found both vibrant and moving. I got to hear Tan explain his work at a slideshow presentation during the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival in 2008. What follows are my notes on his talk, mixed with my own impressions after “reading” his book. 

For someone who tells a story without using words, Tan is wonderfully articulate about his artistic vision and the techniques he uses to achieve it. The Arrival, he says, is informed by historic photography, the photo album, silent film, the graphic novel, and a sort of sea-world surrealism. His art is grounded in images from real life which he then adapts to make slightly strange in order to challenge our assumptions and cause us to slow down and look more deeply. The Arrival is largely about the immigrant experience, and it addresses such issues as identity, political oppression, displacement, community, and miscommunication. At times, Tan uses fantastic visual metaphors to communicate these themes, such as a tadpole-inspired creature to signify metamorphosis or ambivalence regarding community and environment. He says images can express things that are hard to articulate or that touch preliterate emotions; for example, children often cannot say what it is that’s bothering them, but they can illustrate it in a drawing. He said he tries to present the book as a world itself – not just a representation of the world as we know it. 

Tan noted that his book does have words – in his own invented alphabet – and the importance of being able to read comes up more than once in his story. But even without his linguistic symbols, this literalist would urge you to take a look at his remarkable book.

On a related note, Seattle’s The Stranger has awarded Jim Woodring its 2010 Genius Award in Literature for his book Weathercraft, noting that it is the first wordless book to win the award. I’m just now introducing myself to Woodring’s extraordinary artwork through a companion volume, The Frank Book.

Woodring’s often freakish and disturbing dreamscapes present a fantastic world with Moorish-style architecture and a variety of characters drawn in distinctly different ways. Frank, who looks somewhat like a Mickey Mouse woodchuck, bumbles aimlessly about his unpredictable world, sometimes in the company of the toaster-like Pupshaw and Pushpaw (who share a certain affinity with Shaun Tan’s tadpole-like creation mentioned above). Other characters include geometric chickens, Manhog, and floating oddities that resemble elasticized venetian glass bottle stoppers. These wordless stories include down-the-rabbit-hole escapades, out-of-thin-air manifestations, strange metamorphoses, and the consumption and expulsion of various life forms.

Ultimately, it’s a world too weird for words – you just have to see it for yourself.

UPDATE: November 5, 2010

I failed to mention the amazing woodcut novels of Lynd Ward. A 1966 reprint of his 1929 book Gods’ Man has been in the library collection for decades, and we just recently purchased the brand new two-volume Library of America set that contains all six of Ward’s woodcut stories. Gods’ Man was released the same week as the 1929 stock market crash and it is the first of six woodcut novels he was to release up until the beginning of World War II. You owe yourself a look at these. 

 *almost wordless

Scott