More on Sing, Unburied, Sing

 

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There’s a larger sense of story that preoccupies Jesmyn Ward in this book, and that’s the history of our United States, which has forever shouted freedom and equality from the rooftops while living quite another reality. History flies at ten thousand feet, some say, while personal life flies much closer to the ground. Ward is wise, since her historical story is more implied than overt, to have stuck so much closer to the Southern soil and the lives of her characters, relying on a Faulknerian-style of prose to carry both astute readers and critics to the final page. Perhaps her non-story story is a statement to elbow into America’s version of postmodern literature, or perhaps it’s an attempt to lay bare, in ways no other modern American writer seems capable of, the personalities and plights of poor Southern blacks and whites in ways more applicable to early twenty-first century life. Ward, besides being a fluent novelist, is an academic, so I’ll have to go with my first inclination, perhaps. But this story-less tendency among insightful, talented writers such as  the uber-talented Ward has and, I think always will, strike me as a trifle lazy.  

That said, her characters are damned real. They vacillate, the pose, they live moment by moment in her paraphrasing of their lives. They search for dignity, but they do it the hard way by doing what they damned well please – and inconsistently at that. I’m big on equally adept dialogue, and hers is a small disappointment here, but her narrative carries the day for this, her National Book Award winning novel.

 

Visit our website here, where you’ll find more on our books. There’s also a Facebook fan page or two if you can find them. On both you’ll discover more on ideas and events that matter to us — and possibly to you.

 

 

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Every Journey Ends at Home

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

In the South, perhaps more than any other part of these United States, wealth determines both a family’s worth and their protection from harm. And in the South the way that truism affects  blacks hasn’t changed. The prize-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing is another of Ward’s with the poorer people of rural Mississippi, following her astute Salvage The Bones. While the earlier was essentially a story of Mississippi blacks, this one melds poor white culture into the mix.

Leonie is black and the father of her two children, Jojo and Michaela, is assumed to be white. The father, Michael has been in the Mississippi penitentiary, Parchman, a typically brutal and nasty Southern slammer. Leonie and the kids travel with Misty, a friend of Leonie’s, to see Michael upon his release, and the adults promptly get high. The rest of the story, if there really is one, is about their return to their ever-so-humble home. It’s a book astutely written about the modern South, its failures and implied successes, and should be read by those from all locales if they truly want to understand this region of the US of A.

 

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

 

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Alone In A Bitter World

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Savage Country, by Robert Olmstead

Olmstead’s title here says all that’s relevant here, but indulge me in a few details. Michael Coughlin has lost his family and wandered off the white man’s reservation into existential territory. He meets Elizabeth, his brother’s widowed wife, whom the brother has left destitute. There’s a strain of Americana in which it’s sought to make joy from sorrow, wealth from poverty, and Michael and Elizabeth head into the untapped American prairie hopeful of gaining such new life from buffalo hunting. Olmstead offers but a single sentence of awareness concerning the part the couple play in all but sending the American buffalo into extinction, the Native American plains culture along with it. 

Thus there’s little story here. As the pages turn, Olmstead follows suit with the likes of Charles Frazier and his Cold Mountain in allowing the couple and their retinue to experience the prairie expanse, the buffalo butchering, Indian brutality, racism, murder, extreme weather, and the most brutal of robberies. At book’s end, Michael and Elizabeth gain a workable attachment to one another, but lose all else. 

The project of Savage Country is to portray the plains, hence Earth, as indifferent to all life. So indifferent in fact as to not just indulge but encourage life as joyless loss. Of soul. Of material wealth. Of humanity’s connections to one another. 

This book has been lauded in reviews and that’s understandable as long as one wishes to read cynically, without hope of being inspired to anything hopeful, or to refrain from  pointing toward answers to hard questions put to them. Sadly that apparently comprises a significant portion of the American readership. 

My rating: 14 of 20 stars

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Creating the Map to Literature’s Future

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Things change. And one thing that’s changed for me in the past couple of years is that I’m not reading as voraciously. The thirty-plus books I used to read has dwindled to a short dozen. That could be because of several factors, but all of them come back to my love for literary fiction and my difficulty in finding anything out there that makes for a pleasurable, invigorating read. I’m sure you already know this, if you follow my posts here.

I get little in the way of commentary about my book reviews, but I suspect readers want the gist of a book so they’ll know whether or not to invest time in it. With that in mind, I’ve been increasingly unfair in reviews – not unfair to the writers, but to the readers. So here’s my solution:

For every book I review I’ll publish two parts: the first will be what everyone – more or less – wants: the gist of the book. In other words, the story. Where there is little or no story to report, I’ll, well, do what I can to give you an idea of the book’s progression.

The second part will be a bit more technical. How I see character development. The book’s theme or overall ethos, its philosophic bent. And certainly how the book succeeds without a story, perhaps, or how well the existing story is presented and paced.

This means more mental work for me, both in the reading and the reporting. But that’s as it should be. The postmodern era simply means we’re leaving modernism and we’re going somewhere, literarily speaking, but we don’t quite know where yet. Maybe my efforts as armchair critic and yours as reader will create a map of literature’s future.

Oh, and by the way – I’ll be taking a couple of weeks off here, but when I return, you’ll see book reviews again.

 

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It’s not just me. I’m not being unnecessarily curmudgeon-y, if you please. I’ve long been bemoaning the abandonment of story – even the implied story – in literary fiction, but there are larger voices than mine saying it now. A recent article in Britain’s New Statesman, wonders at the dwindling of literary fiction among readers. Writers making a living at writing are down from 40% to 11% in 2013, admittedly a shrinking time noted as we glance to our rear view mirrors.

Is it the retailers’ somewhat greedy 40-50% take of the list price; is that the problem?

Is it the rising costs of hardbacks, the treasures we used to stack against our study and office walls?

Is it a drift to non-fiction?

Proponents won all these, I believe, would be convicted by a jury of their peers, but there’s growing consensus that the true villain lies elsewhere.

Says author Tim Lott, writing for the Guardian, “Literary writers must write better books…My impression of literary fiction is that it has lost the plot. Literally.”

No, says Nicola Baker, a recent Goldsmiths Prize winner, “Experimental novelists and artists provide the ideas that form a cultural plankton for bigger organisms to feast upon…our ideas gradually filter through to the mainstream.”

A well crafted novel, strong on story, can do that too. Ms. Baker’s comment smacks of elitism, an elitism preoccupied with writing for other writers and an assumption that the average avid reader can only comprehend artistic ideas in watered down form. This is the same ethos that almost did in jazz a few decades ago.

It’s well and good to experiment, but Aristotle wasn’t wrong when he said that literature/novel/ story must both inform and entertain.

 

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Taming Literacy in This Age

Is the novel dead?

Why do the remaining book readers today prefer nonfiction to fiction?

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When I had been working as an engineer for some 6-7 years, the Chief Structural Engineer called me in and said, “Bob, I need you to write a letter for me.” What he meant was a scolding letter to a local legislator and one of his constituency. I did that and eventually made my bones in the organization by writing for highly-placed engineers.

It’s never been a secret that technical types are weak on the written word. My question in the early years of my career wasn’t “Why is that so?” Rather, it was, “How is it that I paid attention in grammar and literature classes when other future engineers and scientists didn’t?”

I don’t think I know the complete answer to that. Just a proclivity that eventually led me to be a writer, I suppose.

But what’s afoot here is something called post-literacy. Just as the invention of the printing press made possible literacy, i.e., the ability to read with comprehension and the parallel ability to articulate one’s thoughts by writing in a given language. Thought and social functioning became funneled largely through books, newspapers, and letters.

We now realize that something was lost in moving from the pre-literate age, when society functioned, inspired by oral story-telling, dance, music, poetic history, and the oral handing down of skills such as weaving, blacksmithing, and farming. The printed word and the skills of reading and writing did much to build the modern society, but that society lost much of its passion to the written word’s abstract expressiveness.

Those engineers that I wrote for realized something I didn’t: that the technical professions functioned ably with numerical language, relegating the written word to a support role handled by those who persisted in a fascination with expressing thought and imagination through writing.

So to cut to the chase, is the novel dead? Maybe. Cinema has largely supplanted it, and the novel has even copied cinema in some respects.

Why history and other nonfiction? Imagination is now expressing itself through technological gadgets and social media; those who prefer a longer view lean to more linear examinations of the world we live in.

But all’s never completely lost. We’re now in an age in which intuition  is slowly gaining a foothold over reason, and the devices of pre-modernism are returning: theater, music, poetry, and –yes –perhaps the novel will now grow new legs.

 

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Consultation No. 5 – With Virginia Woolf

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We had a rare opportunity recently to talk with Virginia Woolf, and so I had my staff look into her personal history. My God! It’s a wonder the woman could write at all. We were advised by her latest agent to go easy on that in conversation, but she proved as open as anyone we’ve talked to in this series. We knocked on the door of her now famous London home thinking this would be a conversation on writing technique. It was anything but. She served tea and chocolate brownies that left me a bit woozy. But that put both of us in perfect fettle for the ensuing conversation.

GF – Ms. Woolf, I’d like to begin by asking you about your personal life, if I may…

VW – You may, dear boy, but only in the context of my work. I hardly want to be associated with those – what are they called? Gossip rags?

GF – Yes, we don’t want that for a writer of your stature.

VW – I have posed nude, did you know that?

GF – No. Actually, I’d like to talk to you about your use of the stream of consciousness style of writing –

VW – (Laughing) But don’t you see? How am I to swab the dross from my personal history, as you call it? I can’t preordain what I have to say in my literary work. I have to let it flow – most passionately, I might add – from that deep trough of painful adventure within. (She motioned for me to light her cigarette, and I complied.)

GF – You mean the sexual violations, the domination by men –

VW – Attempted domination, yes.

GF – And you call such experiences painful adventure?

VW – Certainly, young man. Pain must be the source of creativity, and devising a manner of writing that will let it flow onto the page is essential. That’s the thing James calls stream of consciousness.

GF – James Joyce? But some called it self indulgence, even in your day.

VW – You mean Hemingway, don’t you? I loved that boy dearly, but he was hardly one to speak of self indulgence.

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GF – Today we consider him a groundbreaking writer.

VW – He considered himself a groundbreaking modernist, but he was a charlatan. He had no vision, really. Just those gruesome war stories and his bragging about shooting helpless animals.

GF – (I bit my lip, trying not to smile at the critique of indulgence that followed. I asked for more tea. The brownies were making me thirsty. Returning with a fresh, pungent plate of brownies to accompany the tea, she looked at me oddly.)

VW – What is that in your lap? Some new typewriter?

GF – A laptop computer, Ms. Woolf. It’s a handy writer’s tool.

She had me bring the device to her dining table, lit a lamp, and had me explain its workings. We talked on and on about many things, but even now I can make little sense of my notes. At one point she tilted my screen to a favorable position for her viewing and called what I’d written stream of consciousness. I knew she was teasing, and we had many fine laughs about it.

 

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