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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Dream Author Panel: What If I Could Interview Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace?


Zadie Smith and I have one very important thing in common: We both count David Foster Wallace as our favorite writer. She explains her DFW fandom in her terrific essay, "The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace," which starts out as a review of DFW's short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and morphs into a very heartfelt tribute to him and his genius. (She started the essay before he died and finished it afterwards.)

Ever since reading that essay almost a decade ago, I've wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall as those two discussed books and the writing life. So at the prompting of the good folks at Eventbrite, an event planning software company, who are working on a project to collect posts by book bloggers on their dream author panels, I decided I'd up the ante and imagine what it'd be like to actually be the one interviewing them. Like my goofy post about Thomas Pynchon, what follows is an imagined present-day conversation between DFW, Zadie Smith, and me as the moderator. (I mean, if I'm going to write about a dream author panel, why not put myself right in the middle?!)

Me: Zadie, in your essay, you wrote about Dave's famous quote, "Fiction is about what it is to be a f$@#king human being," can you explain why you admire that quote specifically, but also what it says about Dave's own approach to writing fiction?

Zadie Smith: Sure, and thanks — it's great to be here with you and Dave. As I say in the essay, that quote sort of encompasses why I love Dave's fiction: Because it's about empathy. Fiction allows writers and readers alike to walk around in the shoes of someone who is not like the reader at all. It allows readers and writers to understand different situations than their own. That is why nothing is more real than fiction. And Dave does empathy in his fiction better than any writer.

DFW (nervous laugh): Am I a ghost? Kidding. I never had much use for the laws of physics anyway. It is not for me to question how I'm here. I just am. And but so, thanks for the kind words. Yes, also when I delivered that keynote address at Kenyon College in 2005, and sweated my balls off too, empathy was the idea there, too. I talked about being patient with the person in front of you at the grocery store, because you never know what they're going through, and chances are it's worse than you. That understanding of others' situations different from your own is what writing and reading fiction does. It situates you in the world.

Me: Dave, what do you admire about Zadie's fiction?

DFW: She is often described as an exuberant writer, and I agree. I love the experimentation in NW, and I love the take on celebrity and authenticity in Swing Time. But White Teeth is still my favorite. Though, while we're here, what were you thinking with The Autograph Man? A bit of misstep, no?

Zadie: Well, that's brutally honest! Yeah, I'm proud of everything I write, but that was a sophomore slump, sure. But hey man, what were YOU thinking with "Westward The Course of Empire Takes Its Way." That thing was unreadable!

Me (can't help interjecting): For those unfamiliar, Zadie is referring to a novella included in DFW's 1989 story collection Girl With Curious Hair. And she's right, it IS unreadable.

DFW: Yeah, well, I think I've since admitted when I was young writer, my calibration between reader enjoyment and reader aggravation might've been a tad off at times. That's an example of that. I finally got it right with Infinite Jest...or so people tell me.

Me (still can't help myself): I'LL SAY!

Zadie: What's interesting is how well that novel has aged; how relevant it is today in the age of addiction to social media. I mean, I'm not a tweeter or a facebooker, but do you think you would be if you were still here, Dave?

DFW (lighting a cigarette): I think you know about my love for TV and movies, but the entertainment on the web is a different beast. I wouldn't totally decry and ignore it like my buddy Franzen, but I'd probably dip a toe into Twitter just to entertain myself.

Me: Dude, I don't think you can smoke in here. And since we're well over the appropriate length of a normal blog post (wait, what?), let's stop here and go get a drink! 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Evicted: A Heartbreaking, Rage-Inducing Study on Poverty and Profit in the American City

Sociologist Matthew Desmond's New York Times Top 10 of 2016 book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, is an extremely important, vital book in these troubled times. That's because the problem of frequent evictions among the poor, a problem not often discussed, is, as Desmond argues here, a foundational problem to a lot of others in America — including crime, education, and the lack of possibilities for upward mobility for many people.

Desmond's assertion here, made through a combination of meticulous research and the stories of eight Milwaukee families, is that, like health care and voting, housing should be a guaranteed American right.  However, as the book makes starkly clear, the availability of adequate housing for all is far from the current state of things. And what's especially troubling is that a single eviction (sometimes the tenant's fault, just as often not) can send a person and his or her family into a downward spiral from which it's nearly impossible to recover.

For instance, the first person we meet in the prologue of this book is a single mother with a teenage and a middle grade son. She is evicted when her bored elder son, just goofing off, throws a snowball at a motorist, and the motorist stops his car, and kicks in their front door. The landlord thinks they're trouble, so he boots them, as his is right. They find another house, but soon have to leave because the house is condemned by the city for being unlivable. And then, for the rest of the book, this woman and her kids struggle to find any stability in their housing situation — this affects her sons' attendance at school and basic faith in the system. At one point, after an eviction, this woman has to beg the new tenant at an apartment from which she's been evicted to let them stay for a few weeks until they can find somewhere else to live. It's just heartbreaking.

The strength of this book is these personal stories that connect the cold data to real people. Desmond did nearly a year of fieldwork for this book — living both in a predominately white trailer park on the South Side of Milwaukee, and then in a small room in the city's mostly African American North Side. He tells the stories of the people he met and followed for this year — both tenants and landlords, people deserving of our sympathy and those deserving of our anger (neither is often who you think, or fit neatly into often preconceived notions). 

There are few winners and tons of losers in this book. And there's plenty of blame to go around for this broken system, in terms of tenants, landlords, policy makers, law enforcement, etc.

This is such an essential book — I'm really glad it landed on the NY Times list. I may not have read it otherwise. It's not a difficult read at all — its narrative non-fiction structure and Desmond's talent as a writer make this a smooth and easy read. It doesn't feel academic at all.

To me, the lack of empathy and often willful ignorance of others' situations is also a foundational problem to many other problems right now. And reading this book can be a small step toward working on both. Extremely highly recommended.

(And if you'd like to help right away, please consider a donation to Matthew Desmond's charity, Just Shelter.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk: Quick-Witted Wins The Race

It's November 1931, and Lillian Boxfish, the eponymous protagonist of Kathleen Rooney's terrific new novel, out today, Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, is in a downtown Manhattan office meeting with her poetry editor. Lillian has already established herself as the "highest paid woman in advertising" for her witty, humorous copy for R.H. Macy's. But her side hustle is poetry, and her first collection is about to be published. Her editor tells her though that one "fairly minor thing" must yet be sorted out: the title, he and his sales department don't like it. Lillian's response: "The title? How embarrassing...after all these years, and so many verses written, to learn that I have been misusing the word minor." Lillian asserts herself, gets her way, and the title remains in tact, as she preferred it.

I read this little exchange/scene three times, and laughed a little harder each time — Lillian's sarcastic response is perfectly emblematic of her character. She's quick-witted, whip-smart, and doesn't suffer fools gladly. And so after reading that, though I'd been skeptical about how much I'd like a book ostensibly about an old lady who walks around New York City, I knew I'd love this. And I did. A lot!

Yes, it is about 84 (or 85)-year-old Lillian Boxfish, taking a walk around Manhattan on New Year's Eve 1984, but it's also about her entire life, as a copy writer, a mother, briefly a depressed person, and ultimately simply an incredible woman. The novel alternates chapters between her late-night walk in the present (1984) and episodes from Lillian's life. But even her walk is fascinating, as she meets crime-ridden and dangerous (though Lillian is never afraid) Manhattan's diverse crowd of characters — a family who invites her to join them for a steak dinner, a limo driver, an Asian bodega proprietor, some artists and gay bohemians, and a group of African American toughs (which, though near the end, results in my favorite scene in the novel, a laugh-out-loud funny exchange, but an importantly profound one as well). Manhattan is Lillian's town, she owns it, and she will do it her way.

Kathleen Rooney is a fellow Chicagoan, and I loved her novel O, Democracy! (about the absurdity of politics, so yeah, fairly relevant these days!), so I was excited to read this novel, despite it being a bit outside my wheelhouse. I always think the mark of a good writer is to convert you from something you're skeptical about or not sure you'll care about to something you really love and want to highly recommend. Rooney's done that here! Like her protagonist, she's a clever, funny, and really smart writer.  

Monday, January 9, 2017

Half Wild: Elegant Stories About Vermont

At Book Expo America (BEA) last May, I had just finished fawning over getting my book signed by Richard Russo when a publicist sort of grabbed me and asked if I was interested in a slim volume of short stories titled Half Wild by a debut writer named Robin MacArthur. Sure, why not? It was one of those heart-wrenching parts of BEA where a super-talented (as I'd soon learn), but little-known author sat at her table by herself, while all the tables around her (Russo's was directly adjacent) had long lines.

When I got home (MacArthur, by the way, couldn't have been nicer!) I looked over the stories' descriptions and MacArthur's terrific inscription on my book — "For Greg, Enjoy these wild woods, back roads" — and made a mental note that I wouldn't just set this galleys aside so it'd be lost in a pile forever, but to keep it as a TBR priority. It took seven months, but I finally got to it. Super glad I did!

I realize that was a long walk to illustrate an instance of book serendipity, but I think the way I came to these stories actually enhanced how much I liked them. And like them, I did. They're really fantastic! MacArthur explores, in precise but not-precious prose, various characters' connections to their roots in rural Vermont.

"Love Birds" is about ex-hippies who have been married 47 years, live off the grid, can't see themselves anywhere else, and love their simple life (this story is one of my favorites).

"The Heart of The Woods" is a terrific a story about a woman who marries a rich man who flips distressed residential property to commercial real estate. Her father, a logger, is greatly disappointed with her life choices.

And the last story, my favorite in the collection, "The Women Where I'm From" ties a thematic bow on the book, as it follows a young woman named Hannah who lives in Seattle, but returns to Vermont to care for her cancer-stricken mother. Hannah is surprised by the pull her childhood home has over her and tries to decide whether to stay.

These elegant stories really resonated with me. I've actually never been to Vermont, but I do have a bit of a complicated relationship with the place I grew up. And that relationship to your roots is the real theme here. The setting of the Vermont woods is sort of just a bonus - atmospheric and, to me, a bit exotic even.

If you've followed this blog for any amount of time, you'll recognize it's rare that I post about short story collections. But I loved this collection — and I think most readers will too. Very highly recommended!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Moonglow: Chabon's Glowing Tribute To His Family

Would that we could all memorialize our grandparents as well as Michael Chabon does in his new novel, Moonglow — a blend of fact, fiction, memories, and research. It's an innovative form for fiction Chabon writes here — not exactly a memoir, not exactly a novel, but with elements of both. The end result, though, is a funny, messy, heartfelt tribute to his family, and it's a terrific reading experience.

The story is based on some deathbed conversations Chabon had with his grandfather as his grandfather died of cancer in 1989. It took until recently for Chabon to develop the format he needed to tell this story — as well as one recent massive discovery (which would be a spoiler to reveal) about his grandmother that surely pulled this all together for him.

The novel includes about five main strands of the story of his grandfather's life, but like memory itself, they're not arranged chronologically (despite, amusingly, his grandfather's insistence that Chabon do so if he wrote this). These stories flit in and out of themselves in the way memories do as well — they launch from a single thought or an object, or a taste or smell. Chabon also includes his own memories of his grandfather telling him these stories — the time he wanted beer with his pills or about how he got angry when Chabon continued a particular line of questioning.

But Chabon's grandfather is the star of this show — the man led an unquestionably fascinating life. He was a World War II special agent who spent time behind enemy lines trying to track down the German V-2 rocket and its inventor, Wernher von Braun. Post-war, he married a beautiful but mentally unstable woman who had endured her own horrific hardships during the war (she's French and immigrated to the US after the war, barely surviving with her daughter — Chabon's mother). And he spent time in jail in the late 1950s for strangling his boss with a phone cord (this is the anecdote that leads off the novel, so right from the opening pages, we're on board with this guy to find out what he'll do next). Throughout his life, he was fascinated with rocketry and going to the moon — even building a model moon colony, a sort of symbol of escape from his troubled life specifically, but troubled life in general here on this planet.

Though Chabon loses a little momentum in the last 75 pages or so, and at times, his structure does make it a little hard to keep track of where we are in time and what's already happened, on the whole, this is a fulfilling and enjoyable read. Chabon is a fantastically talented writer, as I'm sure you know — and this is as good as any of his best work.