Oral Tales Written and Human Lives Easily Broken

As much as I love the literature of our United States and its writers, I’ve slowly come to appreciate fine writing from other countries. While much of such writing is influenced by U.S. writers, there’s still much to learn from these bits of “foreign” fiction and nonfiction, the uniqueness of these writers’ lives, their stylistic originality, and the commonness of experience is places faraway and nearby. So for the next few weeks I’ll focus on writing coming from faraway lands.




Black Diamond, by Zakes Mda

Before the written word, stories were passed on orally, something enjoying a minor comeback these days. And in Black Diamond, Zakes Mda has his story’s narrator mimic this ancient mode of storytelling. If you’re a reader committed to the modern techniques of the novel, much of what you read here may very well grate. Still, there’s Mda’s story, which is at least as engaging as the most popular genre fiction of today. The difference, though, is that this book also informs readers of post-apartheid life in South Africa. So what is Mda’s story?

Don Mateza, a former black revolutionary and now an up and coming member of security firm, is in a flawed romantic liaison with Tumi, an ambitious owner of a modeling agency. Don is given the job of protecting a white magistrate, Kristin Uys, who has sent Stevo Visagie, a member of a tough but minor crime family to prison. Stevo’s family threatens Kristin, and it’s Don’s job to balance his professional duties to the magistrate against his decaying involvement with Tumi. I hesitate to go on with the story at this point; I might be accused of revealing too much. Suffice it to say that Mda handles the intertwined fates of the Visagie family, Don, Kristin, and Tumi quite well.

The title, by the way, is a term for a member of the increasingly affluent black middle class in South Africa. Mda does himself proud in his depictions of post-apartheid life in the former black community of Soweto, the lives of black South Africans living respectable middle class lives and others still living on the perimeter of that society, the slow emergence of blacks and whites finding ways to live and work together. I’m one who isn’t enthralled with Mda’s choice of voice and narrative style, but the book’s content makes it a worthy read.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars



The Transformational Nature of Literature


The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt


Imagine a book written in the twenty-first century with pen and pencil in notebooks, work on the novel taking place over ten years. What would such a book be like? How long would it be? What impact would it have on readers? Judging by sales charts in the New York Times and others, this 770 page book is wildly popular. But why would so many readers tackle such a book in this, the age of thirty-second attention spans? I may not adequately answer the pithier of these questions, but here goes.

Ms. Tartt has created a bildungsroman here, its first-person narrator and principal character a boy named Theo Decker. Theo’s father has wandered away from his parental responsibilities, his mother has died in a museum explosion that Theo not only survives but he walks out with a priceless painting, The Goldfinch. He manages to hang on to the painting (or he thinks so) through life with a rich, troubled New York family, then with his father in Vegas, a friendship and drugs with a Russian boy alienated from his father (mother dead), and finally college and apprenticeship to a New York antique restorer. The painting’s presence in Theo’s life allows him to hang onto his mother and his childhood until he realizes that it’s wrong to cling to the past, that it must be returned to its rightful place in society.


Tartt’s voice here is stupendous; her Theo consistently presented, and her narrative descriptions of New York’s busy hustle, Vegas’ barrenness, and Amsterdam’s freewheeling life are among the best I’ve ever read, seemingly tossed off as if in conversation over a glass of scotch. But she isn’t satisfied to depict the seaminess of youthful drug taking, abandoned children, the danger and depravity accompanying the art underworld. At book’s end, she gives us a philosophical treatise on the true value of art and of life itself. We may never understand life as we live it, but the true artists of each age allow us to see bits of life in perspective, as Carel Fabritius did by painting his goldfinch, a beautiful bird, but chained to its perch by a chain so finely rendered that a viewer may not at first notice it. Art, then, reveals the patterns and fixtures in life that both free us and imprison us, as family does, as childhood freedom does, as romance and marriage do, as education and career may do as well.

No novel is perfect, and one may select certain passages to fault here, but the value of literature isn’t in the precision of its grammar, the lapses in inspired prose, it’s in the energy that drives the life of the novel. So of what artistic value, then, is Tartt’s The Goldfinch? What impact does it promise its readers? In a certain sense it transforms the pre-Victorian urges of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into those of a postmodern, existential reality. In doing so, Tartt has proven that art is perhaps the better depiction of ethics and wisdom than those of religious texts and dogma. As times change, but as the underlying patterns of life remain a safety net between us and existential collapse, literature adjusts, it paints the picture anew for each age.


My rating: 20 of 20 stars


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Teamwork Tells the Tale

Empire on the Platte, by Richard Crabb



If this post’s title confuses or leads astray, I’m sorry. Nebraskan Burt Sell, a home-grown historian, provided much of author Crabb’s fodder for this book, by the author’s admission information important to the tale. And a great tale it is.

We first follow the lives of the Olive family, beginning with patriarch James Olive. Most of the story, however, is built on the life and times of James and wife Julia’s son, I.P. (Isom Prentice) Olive, known familiarly as Print. The Olive family settles in western Texas in the early 1800s and make their name rounding up wild longhorn cattle – something of a cowboy Garden of Eden. Despite competing cattlemen and rustlers, the Olives make a fortune on the backs of these longhorns. Soon, however, farmers begin coming in droves, and the Olives pick up and move to Nebraska. There they come to loggerheads once more with settlers intent on farming, and we see developing the conflict between cattlemen and sodbusters, which has been made into virtual cliche in early cowboy movies.

The Olive family’s part in this conflict along the Platte River is a central one, and it summons controversy. As Crabb tells the Olive story, Print murders a pair of farmers in gruesome fashion. Some of those involved in the killings turn state’s evidence, and Print is sent to jail.

The rest of the century-long conflict between farmers and ranchers isn’t told here; Crabbs story is built myopically about Print, and with his conviction this chapter of the long-running western conflict ends. Crabb gives us a chronological tour of this story, and he offers a multitude of details without the book becoming cumbersome. For historians wishing to find out more about this chapter of the U.S.’s westward expansion, the book is a must. And it’s eminently readable for the casual nonfiction reader.


My rating: 17 of 20 stars


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To Hustle or Not

Curiosity brought the missus and me to the ticket window this past weekend to see American Hustle, and I admit I went in with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I’d seen the previews so many times I could recite them, and I’d grown wary of good actors shouting their lines, and satirizing the seventies as they shouted. And my wariness didn’t vanish until some thirty minutes into the movie. Then the story line took hold beneath these eminently talented actors’ skills.




But what exactly is the story line? It’s hard to synopsize because the hustle is so intricate, but think of the Abscam scandal of that same era, in which an FBI agent posed as an Arab sheikh, offering money to a number of U.S. congressmen for asylum in the U.S., and for other related requests. Here, it’s much the same, but those caught up in the sting are New Jersey politicians of various ilks. Christian Bale and Amy Adams – two nobodies aiming to embrace the “American Dream” – initiate the movie’s hustle, get caught, and are made front persons for the FBI sting, led by Bradley Cooper. It’s a bumbling, witty, and in the end near-genius ploy that Christian Bale and Amy Adams use to free themselves from the FBI’s grip and go legit.

This is life in America, I thought as we left the theater. There seem to have always been two avenues to success and a place at the table here in America:

  • Hustle your way up the ladder, and damn the beatings, the humiliation, the ongoing prospects of losing everything in a New Jersey minute.
  • Develop a craft or a profession and earn your way up – ever so slowly – through hard, honest work. The danger here is of the Willy Loman type – the steady drip, drip, drip of such hard work in order to remain afloat in America.

In the end what troubles me about this movie is not the yelling, the gaudy, profane grasping for recognition and status, but that Amy and Christian’s characters are glamorized for such reaching. But then that’s my bias, I suppose; my place at the table has been the sure but steady plodding though hard work, and hoping I don’t lose my soul to that drip, drip, drip.

This movie will surely be among the Academy Awardees this year. Who among its stellar cast will win prizes? Bradley Cooper, I think, for his portrayal of the FBI’s lead agent in this sting, and Jennifer Lawrence for Christian Bale’s gaudy, not-altogether-with-it wife. If this proves true, then that will be a bit of irony beyond the movie’s scope.


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Vulnerability and Glamour, Past and Present



Sutton, by J. R. Moehringer


Well, well. A Pulitzer-winning journalist that writes excellent historical fiction. One of the things that draws writers to historical fiction is a compulsion to fill in the unknown/unknowable gaps about events or characters and make the made-up gap fillers seem right in keeping with the known. But I should give a bit about Moehringer’s story at this point.

Willie Sutton, notorious bank robber of the early twentieth century, has just been let out of Attica Prison and is in his sixties. He’s suffered a life of hard knocks and it’s clear he won’t last much longer. A New York reporter and photographer corral him as he’s let out of Attica, and he cons them into driving him around the city so he can relive the significant events of his life: brutal beatings from his brothers, his life-long obsession with a girl named Bess, banks robbed, places he’s stayed on the lam, bars he’s drunk in. He’s trying to summarize his life at these two lads’ expense. But the jaunt ends, and with great irony involved, Moehringer allows the reporter to become obsessed with Sutton’s life.

It would have been easy to have cast Sutton in a society-done-me-wrong role, or to have written the story with an alternate version of Sutton’s life hovering over the famed robber’s – and the author’s – lives, an “I wish I’d done this here instead of that” rueful telling, but that wouldn’t have been in keeping with Sutton’s life. Instead Sutton simply wants a retrospective before he settles in to wait for the Grim Reaper.


Moehringer’s prose is wry to the point of tartness in portraying Sutton, and his dialogue is as good as any by the best crime novelists. His alternating past with present in a way that allows them to be as seamless as past and present can be is excellent. In the end, the author gives us a stellar story and a sensitive character rendering.


My rating: 19 of 20 stars




Real life Made Personal



Creative Nonfiction, Summer 2012 Issue


This isn’t a writer’s magazine, but then it is. First and foremost it’s a doorway to publication for writers in the genre of personalized, real-life subjects. Creative Nonfiction publishes experienced writers, writers with the ubiquitous MFAs and people who just happen to have a story to tell from their lives.

This particular issue (Lee Gutkind, the editor, usually assigns a theme to each issue and advertises it several months ahead) deals with the subject of true crime, even with the ethics of writing about crime. Why ethics, you ask? The issue’s roundtable discussion on the subject deals with that circuitously, but a lot of the concern has to do with romanticizing criminal acts. 

But this issue’s stories?

They’re all riveting, and most use Gutkind’s favored technique of weaving supporting facts into a personal account of crime. Among my favorites are:

AC Fraser tells of prison’s manner of having one submit to regimentation and rather demeaning life there, something she calls Identity Folding. 

Steven Church writes about one of the Tyson-Holyfield fights, in which Mike Tyson bit off a piece of one of Evander Holyfield’s ears.

Joyce Marcel’s account of robbing ancient graves in Peru of historical artifacts blends that derring-do with her sexual exploits.

The common thread through these stories is the ultra-personal, almost psychological approach to the persons involved in the various violations and violences. This isn’t reportage – it’s much more than that.

Again, editing such magazines in a Herculean task, and sometimes the approach taken doesn’t work. Gutkind’s approach for Creative Nonfiction does work in this issue, and it works well.



A Novel Hanging by Many Threads

Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann


image via goodreads.com 


This is about as complex a novel as you’re likely to find these days. That’s not praise, exactly, but neither is it a complaint. It’s about New York City in the grander perspective, probably why it was honored with a National Book Award.  And it’s written disjointedly, in the stylish structure of Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Pynchon. Another thing in its favor in the book award sweepstakes. 

It begins with an Irish man looking for his brother in New York, the brother some sort of sidewalk saint, who, well, does what he can for the down and out. In and out of this story walk many characters: several hookers, some office workers, a Guatemalan nurse, a judge, and a high-wire daredevil, to name a few.

The book’s coherence, as much as it exists, concerns a man walking a tightrope between the two World Trade Centers, as New York collectively looks on. Incidentally, McCann’s dialogue between the watchers is some of the most vivid I’ve read, and that’s definitely a compliment. Imagining this guy's high wire act almost gave me vertigo. 



image via vulture.com

McCann juggles his memorable characters admirably, his dialogue is taut and evocative, and  his prose often sparkles. The pitfalls with this sort of story are those of coherence and detail. His strung-together story often hangs by one of several threads, but in the end, he makes it work. Still, all too often there are details to the book's goings-on, to the characters’ lives, that take us nowhere but deeper into minutiae. Maybe that's New York fer ya.


My rating: 15 of 20 stars