Wednesday, November 14, 2012

National Book Award: The 2012 Fiction Winner Is...

Tonight the National Book Award for Fiction will be announced -- and for the first time in my life, I have read the five finalists:  Louise Erdrich, Junot Diaz, Ben Fountain, Dave Eggers, and Kevin Powers.  That each book is beautifully written may come as no surprise, but I'd like to handicap the horse race by offering a few quick observations about the books and their authors.  My comments will come in the order in which I read the books.

Dave Eggers can do no wrong.  He's sort of my idol as a writer and a person.  He is not only an extra-ordinarily ambitious writer , but also one of the most socially conscious human beings on the planet.  I've read nearly everything he has written -- from his spectacular debut memoir, A Hearthreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to his brilliant novel What Is the What to his journalistic nonfiction book set during Hurricane Katrina, Zeitoun.

Dave Eggers increasingly writes with a Hemingwayesque spareness, and many have praised his restraint and control.  (The opposite qualities -- exuberant excess and humor -- are the qualities that he was first known for).  This book is amazingly controlled and the plot reads a production of Beckett's Godot (a Beckett quote serves as the epigraph) in the service of a lament on the subject of globalization and the loss of American manufacturing might.  It is another major achievement for Eggers but at times the plotting feels studied:  the main character worked for the Chicago-based Schwinn bike company, and Eggers offers proof he has researched that bike factory enough to offer the requisite details necessary for verisimilitude.  I sort of miss the pyrotechnics and humor Eggers is capable of writing as well.  So, while this book is utterly absorbing and shows an increasingly mature prose style, I can't say it is my favorite book of the year.

Kevin Powers is a phenom, a military veteran and a poet.  His combat experience and his lyrical language are both on full display throughout this extra-ordinary debut novel.  It's hard for me to imagine a book this good could be a first novel.  Several of the chapters work as discreet stories that I intend to use in my writing classes and my American Studies classes.  Many scenes have haunted me since reading this book, but I will focus on one.  Soldiers come to the sad realization that they are trying to retake the same hill they have taken before -- at a tremendous cost the two previous years.
The platoon leader sardonically says it will be an annual tradition like football games between Michigan and Ohio State.  The futility of the enterprise -- if not the war -- is unbelievably sad.

Can I be misanthrope enough to point out that the book feels slightly over-written at times?  Yes.  Powers occasionally favors heavy abstractions that force the reader to concentrate on the language of the prose poem that is the novel at the expense of the characters ("a calculus for what goes ungrieved," or "the echo of some morbid geometry").  This is a dazzling debut novel but, I would not vote for this book to win the award.

Junot Diaz is all-world everything these days.  His magnificent most recent book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize and he won a McArthur genius award earlier this year.  The guy can do no wrong.  This book is the only collection of stories in the field and some stories are more successful than others.  I especially liked the stories Invierno and Alma, two pieces that feature the return of his character Yunior, and that both deal with the idea of immigration and class in the "great melting pot" of New York.  This is not a fair complaint, perhaps, but not every story is wholly successful.  Plus, Diaz has won too much already.  He, like the two gentlemen above, is a prodigy -- and perhaps out of jealousy I can't give him the award either.

Louise Erdrich is the only woman in the field and the only native American writer.  Contrary to what the Huff Post reported today (in a bizarrely uninformed piece on the awards), Erdrich is hardly a "middle-weight" author.  In fact, I think she has been one of the most brilliant and original writers over the last 25 years, creating a magnificent literary edifice that makes her a worthy successor to Faulkner.  This book is not one of her most dazzling efforts, yet it is beautifully and poetically written from the point of view of a young boy who recounts events of his youth from his older, wiser perspective as a mature man.  Is it too short-sighted to say is smacks of young adult literature (another genre Erdrich excels at)? The book is moving and "relatively straight" for her (it offers a unified voice rather than a chorus of narrators that she employs in many other books).  It perhaps echoes To Kill a Mockingbird most of all, but this story of a search for justice is even more personal (the narrator's mother is the victim) and it is certainly more complicated by the the fact that it is set on a reservation.  It is a truly fine book, and one I believe will be taught in schools, but I would not vote for this one either.

Ben Fountain gets my vote.  This book is a daring feat, taking place over a single day:  the end of a sham "victory tour" in which soldiers are treated as pawns in a public relations game by bigwigs (President Bush and Dallas Cowboys "royalty").  Daring, too, is the black comedy, often laced with acid, that pervades nearly every sentence.  Last:  Fountain is over 50 and this is his debut novel.  At last:   a great writer who is not a prodigy!  So, I'd give this one to Fountain.

Let's see if this prediction worked out. 

This year, every finalist is truly deserving, but the prize and the prestige can be life-changing in a writer's career, and none of these writers would receive a bigger boost than Fountain.

Since this blog is concerned with education, I'd also like to add that each of the finalists' books would work well in schools, especially since they each deal with pressing contemporary issues:  war, poverty, justice, globalization, race,  and gender. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Erasure Poems

I'm a big fan of Mary Ruefle's wonderful and tiny little book, A Little White Shadow. This is her book of "erasure poems." The poet takes prose texts and whites out uninteresting words, leaving only words that form a new poem that has utterly transformed the original text.

Here's a link to a clever site set up by her publisher, Wave Books:

Try your own hand at "erasures." I'll list some poems my students have written here:

“Like Winter” by Ozakh

summer together?
I remember the ocean
how beautiful that was...
like another planet…,
it’s funny we’d be a team, we’d argue,
always did.
We grew up
in one second.
doesn’t feel very different.
didn’t feel very different.


the winter.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Maple leaf palimpsests
Stamping the pavement
With crazy webbed footprints
Like dinosaur tracks,
A stampede of deranged ptero-

Monday, September 5, 2011

Room Full of Chairs

I was thrilled to see a blog called Basho's Road dedicate a post to my first book of poems, Room Full of Chairs.  It's hard to believe that it has been 10 years since that book came out.  My second book of haiku, Things Being What They Are, came out this spring.  Here's a sample of the new book, too:

back from Iraq
my former student remembers
freshman year

first day of school
the Latin teacher
coated in chalk

Bassett pup
his whole snout
in every footstep

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Wordplaygrounds in Glencoe

Thursday night's reading was the perfect way to end the summer workshop at the Glencoe Library. We heard from 10 writers in all. (25 writers came to at least one session during the four weeks we met). I'm linking to the blog intern Alexa Peterson created to chart the workshop.

Congratulations to all the writers who attended. Keep having fun on the Wordplaygrounds -- and keep writing!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

How to Read the Kindle

I just watched a horrifying commercial from Amazon.  Here is the commercial and then a short reading of that commercial:

As the narrative opens, a young man stands holding his Kindle.  An attractive woman walks out into the tablua rasa white space of the advertising world (and is it possible to read that as anything other than the intellectual vaccuum in which they both live?),  and asks, "Hey where are you going?"  When she invites him to the bookstore to get a book that "just came out," he declines.   (Apparently the book's not the only thing that's just come out).   He is ordering a "new book" on his Kindle "in less than 60 seconds."  "Oh my god," she responds, "That's the book I was going to get."  Wow.  What a coincidence!   The commercial ends with her reading his Kindle, while shushing him with a warning finger.  Here are some secret messages the commercial contains: 

1.  Speed is good.  Would downloading the book be worth the wait of, say, 3 minutes? 

2.  Novelty is also good.  The book both people want is brand-spanking new.  That it's a best seller is implied by the new-ness and the fact that they both want it.  (Fun fact:  "best sellers" are determined by books pre-ordered, not books sold.   Their label is a self-fulfilling prophecy).

3.  The world and the people within it are things to be avoided.  There is literally no world in the commercial.  The actors provide the only clue we are viewing a 3-D space (though, ironically, the actors themselves are decidedly 2-D).  Bookstores are things to be avoided.  So, too, are people apparently since the the two actors are looking at the screen and not each other as the commercial ends.

4.  Words are bad.   The commercial script segues into a non-verbal cue from the woman telling the man to shut up, followed by airy and mindless la-la-la music without actual words.

The book that both actors want desperately to pick up (and not necessarily to read) is Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken.  The book came out last year -- 18, 489, 600 seconds ago -- and was, you guessed it:  a New York Times best seller and a "make book" from Amazon.  It was their "book of the month" and a book they have tried in other ways to "make" you buy.  An odd and dated choice to display for a TV ad you wonder?  I think the ad people are trying to market this device to non-readers, a demographic they are not only appealing to but also helping to create. 

I'm not anti-technology.  (In fact, I am typing these words on a computer).  I've just never seen Amazon so nakedly attack bookstores, community, personal contact, and words themselves.  Bookstores are vanishing rapidly and funding for libraries is always under threat.  Outside of schools, what public spaces will allow people to gather, to read, to talk, and to think?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Reading: My Life

            Christopher Columbus and Sister Margaret Marie, my third grade teacher, had more in common than anyone would have expected.  Each led me to flee my early school life and to withdraw inward.  Sister slapped me for my arrogance, hitting me across my face with both palms, as if she were crashing cymbals in the finale of the William Tell Overture.  Columbus, too, was arrogant, thinking he could cross an ocean without falling off, and he, too, was slapped – in chains, returning home having seen more than other men, yet humbled before the authority of the crown.
            I hated Sister Margaret then and because of her I forced myself to throw up the next day so that I could stay home from school.  “Okay,” my parents said, “but there’ll be no one else around with you all day.”  “That’s all right,” I feebly muttered, in my best Ferris Beuhler voice (though this was long before the movie).
            I stayed home bored out of my mind.  (My mother hid the tv cord and I could find nothing much to do).  I searched the basement and found an orange rectangular book called The Life of Christopher Columbus.  It was my older brother’s and it looked cool.  I liked the illustrations, Columbus surveying the New World from the prow of the ship; Columbus brought low, in the hold.  “I know how you feel, brother,” he seemed to be saying.  This was the first book I read by myself, and while I did not exactly become a voracious reader after this experience – who could with baseball diamonds and tennis courts all around? – I was very proud of my accomplishment and kept the memory of that book inside the trophy case of my memory, pulling it out whenever I doubted my abilities in school.
            In 10th grade, I remember reading Brave New World on a bench outside school when a P.E. teacher said, “What are you doing with a book, O’Connor?”  A P.E. teacher, for Chrissake!  This was devastating to me (even though I was a C- student up until this point, finding school unbearably boring and artificial) since it forced me for the first time to confront the image I must have been projecting to the world (or, at least to Coach Kuskie, who might have stood in for the world as well as anyone else in my life at that moment).  Brave New World seemed revolutionary to me – prescient, pressing – and I really wanted to know about Huxley’s life and what could have led him to develop his super-cynicism.
            I began to read and began to judge people by what they read.  My favorite book that year was Black Boy, a book I identified closely with, since it, too, is a story of literary awakening.  This book made me want to write, and that year I published two stories in the school literary magazine, The Gift Horse:  one a blatant rip-off of the Tolkein craze; the other an almost unsurpassably pretentious story called M.E. (Mount Emotion).  No subtle symbols for me; I needed an Everest-sized avatar of my budding personhood. 
            I coasted through the next four years of school without too many breakthroughs, though some books have stayed with me in powerful ways – The Great Gatsby, the first paper I ever typed, which was an analysis of the Eggs, and Nick’s inchoate adulthood; and all those truth tellers:  King Lear’s Cordelia, Holden Caulfield – and everything by Kurt Vonnegut.
            But Eleni has been the greatest influence on my reading life.  No, not the Nicholas Gage novel, but the woman who became my wife, and still the best-read person I have ever met.  She led me toward Henry James, Dickens, and James Joyce.   In an Anglo-Irish Lit. class, we read the short story “The Dead,” which features a scene set in Oughterard, County Galway, my father’s hometown.  For the first time in my life, I was proud to be Irish-American.  Suddenly, my white trash, Mick roots were cool, European.  How I loved to hear the professor say that Joyce was the greatest writer of the century and that tiny Ireland, one-fifth the size of Illinois, had produced four Nobel laureates.  “Better, I daresay,” he’d add, “than Illinois has done.”
            Just before I came back to this draft, I left the living room where my wife and I were reading.  She is reading Love Medicine, by one of my favorite writers (I love having read enough to recommend writers), and I am reading Epitaph of a Small Winner, by Machado de Assis, a book I realized just a few pages in will be one of the greatest books I will ever read, a book to whom so many of my favorites are clearly indebted – Marquez, Cortazar, Rushdie. 
            Reading leaves me feeling elated and despondent by the same truth:  You are hopelessly ignorant and the water is rising.  But reading has also saved my life.  I had been adrift scholastically, teetering on the edge of the world, in danger of drowning like my father, a man who never learned to read.  Books, essentially made from the same pulpy substance as Columbus’s armada, have kept me afloat, traveling around the world in search of other seekers.