Tag Archives: National Book Award

Book Review: “Waiting” by Ha Jin

Last summer, I visited a wonderful bookstore—actually a series of buildings filled to the rafters with books–called The Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut, a shoreline community. I bought Ha Jin’s 1999 National Book Award winner, “Waiting,” for four dollars. I could have taken the book out of the library, but this one was a keeper.

“Waiting” is a poignant and skillfully crafted story about the collision between love and obligation, duty to family and society and following one’s heart. Lin Kong is a doctor in the Chinese Army forced into a loveless marriage with the faithful Shuyu, whom his family chooses to take care of his sick mother and father. Kong sees Shuyu only briefly once a year, when he returns to their farming village on leave from the Army hospital in the city of Muji. At the Army hospital where Kong is deployed, he falls in love with Manna Wu, a nurse. Every year, he asks Shuyu for a divorce and at the last minute she decides to oppose the divorce and the court refuses to grant it.

Army regulations and societal norms prevent Kong and Wu from even leaving the hospital grounds together. Looming in the background is the changing Chinese society. The story begins in 1963 and covers 20 years, including the height of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, led a movement toward strict Communist doctrine and repression of capitalism, which triggered widespread factionalism and abuses of power.

Kong is a decent, but flawed, man who struggles with his emotions, even around Wu, whom he loves. His love affair with Wu exists in a sort of limbo, as does his emotional state. The law allows Kong to divorce Shuyu without her consent after 18 years and he is finally able to marry Wu. The cruelest of ironies awaits Kong as he learns first-hand about the wisdom of the saying that one should be careful what he wishes for.

Ha Jin is a gifted writer who blends character descriptions, setting and dialogue to paint a vivid picture of a society many of us have never seen. The human struggle and the agonizing wait give this story its momentum and power. “Waiting” is as much about the cataclysmic changes in Chinese society as it is about the story of a single relationship, but it is also a cautionary tale that tells us the heart doesn’t always know what it wants.

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Author Spotlight: Alice McDermott

In a 2006 review of Alice McDermott’s novel After This, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote: “Ms. McDermott gives us an affecting meditation on the consolations and discontents of family life — the centripetal and centrifugal forces that bind husbands and wives, parents and children together and fling them ineluctably apart.”

That astute observation applies to all of her brilliant work. Alice McDermott is a master at the craft, an author who never wastes a single word. Her novels are not long (most are under 300 pages), but are packed with penetrating insights into family, loss of innocence, dreams and disillusion.

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Alice McDermott is the author of six novels: A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), That Night (1987), At Weddings and Wakes (1992), Charming Billy (1998), Child of My Heart: A Novel (2002) and After This (2006).

McDermott is best known for Charming Billy, winner of an American Book Award and the National Book Award in 1999. In an interview with National Public Radio, McDermott talked about the character, Billy, who is introduced to the reader at a dinner held in his honor after his funeral. “He died an alcoholic and the book explores his deep and fierce loyalty to the dream his early love represented,” she said. That dream centered on a girl from Ireland, who Billy fell deeply in love with and vowed to marry. His best friend told him a white lie about the girl when Billy asks what happened to her and why she failed to respond to his inquiries. The girl’s ghost haunts Billy all his life, even after he later finds out the harsh truth.

Speaking about Billy, McDermott said, “He’s that stereotypical lovable Irishman, drinks too much, puts his arm around you at 3 AM, when everyone else has gone home and with tears in his eyes, tells you how much he loves you. He’s a great guy but also he’s drinking himself to death and no one can stop him.”

Charming Billy is “ultimately a novel about faith, and what we believe in and, above all, what we choose to believe in. And I think that Billy in this community is someone who the people around him have to believe a romantic tale about…They need to make something more of his life.”

Her stories are rooted in the Long Island suburbs where McDermott grew up as an Irish-Catholic in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The themes of faith and loss run through McDermott’s work. Family members grow up yearning to break free, but them find themselves trapped by circumstances and loyalties, bound to a life they never envisioned. Billy is a dreamer who pines for his lost love in Ireland, while struggling to cope with his every-day existence.

There is a sense of duty and decency to her characters that, in spite of their flaws, evokes sympathy in the reader.

McDermott once described writing as an obsession. In a New York Times interview after That Night was published, she said, ”I suppose I don’t know any other way of living. Not even just making sense of my own life, as I think the narrator of my novel is trying to do with hers. But I just don’t know any other way of getting along in the world…When I’m not writing -and I have considered many times trying something else – I can’t make sense out of anything. I feel the need to make some sense and find some order, and writing fiction is the only way I’ve found that seems to begin to do that. Even if the story or the novel ends up saying there is no sense and there is no order, at least I’ve made that much of an attempt.”

Alice McDermott’s novels make sense out of the frailties and mysteries of family life.

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Book Review: “Generosity: An Enhancement,” By Richard Powers

Richard Powers, winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2006 novel, The Echo Maker, writes at the intersection of science and the humanities. The reader would do well to have a copy of  Merck’s or the Physician’s Desk Reference handy when tackling Powers’ work.

His latest, Generosity: An Enhancement, published in 2009, is lighter on the science than some of his past work, but plumbs issues of genetics and bio-ethics. With genetics as the backdrop, Powers poses large questions in this novel: what is it that makes us happy and how can we be happy all the time? And, even if we could be happy all the time, would this state of bliss rob us of the essence of what makes us human?

At the center of this story is a Berber Algerian refugee, the always happy, Thassadit Amzwar. She is a student in a college course called Creative Nonfiction, Journal and Journey. Her professor is Russell Stone, a down-and-out editor for a self-improvement magazine. Stone is an adjunct faculty member at a mediocre college in Chicago. Stone’s entire class is mesmerized by Thassa’s sunny nature and they take to calling her, Miss Generosity. None is more obsessed with the young Kabylie woman than Stone. He does exhaustive internet research on the Algerian civil war and the psychological literature, looking for studies on what causes people with such a bleak upbringing to be so optimistic.

Stone consults a mental health counselor at the college named Candace Weld, who is likewise drawn to Thassa’s sunny aura. Stone and Weld become lovers and both are under Thassa’s giddy spell.

Early on, Powers introduces the reader to Tonia Schiff, who produces documentaries on cutting-edge scientific discoveries for a show called Over the Limit. She is interviewing Thomas Kurton, a renowned geneticist who is something of a celebrity, a more self-confident version of the pop psychologist, Dr. Gerald Webber in The Echo Maker. Kurton has started a biotech company devoted to better living through chemistry. Kurton’s quest is to allow humankind to achieve perfection on earth through genetic engineering.

The first turning point of the story occurs when one of Thassa’s classmates attempts to rape her. It is the type of urban crime that may go unnoticed outside of Chicago, except that Stone, when interviewed by the police, uses the term “hyperthermia” to describe the woman, whose name is not divulged by the police. A researcher for Kurton comes across the term during a daily internet keyword search and he decides he must track her down for his study. Kurton locates and arranges a meeting with Thassa and convinces her to undergo a series of tests for his study. Anxious to publish his findings, Kurton refers to Thassa in his study as “Jen.”

In the second dramatic turn, a classmate reveals Thassa’s identity through social media and her email box is flooded with requests, ranging from religious fanatics who see her as some sort of messianic figure to sad sacks who believe she can cure them. Soon, Thassa is an instant celebrity and is invited to appear on an Oprah-style talk show, Oona.

The struggle between science and the humanities is best illustrated by an earlier scene when Stone, Weld and Amzwar attend a debate between a Nobel Laureate and Kurton, the geneticist:

“The novelist’s argument is clear enough: genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature. Take control of fate, and you destroy everything that joins us to one another and dignifies life. A story with no end or impediment is no story at all. Replace limits with unbounded appetite, and everything meaningful turns into nightmare.”

The geneticist responds:

“Kurton praises the long, mysterious journey of literature. ‘Imaginitive writing has always been the engine of future fact.’ He thanks his opponent. ‘You’ve made a lot of good points that I’ll have to thank about.’ He concedes that genetic enhancement does force major reconsiderations, starting with the boundaries between justice and fate, the natural and the inevitable. ‘But so did the capture of fire and the invention of agriculture.’

“He invites a thought experiment. Suppose you want to have a baby, but you’re at high risk for convening cystic fibrosis. You go to the clinic, where the doctors, by screening your eggs, guarantee that your child will be born free of a hideous and fatal disease. ‘Not too many prospective parents will have a problem with that…’

Thomas Kurton sees only the audience. “Now suppose you come to the clinic already pregnant, and tests show cystic fibrosis in your fetus. Assuming that doctors can bring a treatment risk down to acceptable levels…’

Later in the scene, Kurton addresses the role of literature:

“Russell comes alert when Kurton invokes the use of literature. ‘For most of human history, when existence was too short and bleak to mean anything, we needed stories to compensate. But now that we’re on the verge of living the long, pain-reduced, and satisfying life that our brains deserve, it’s time for art to lead us beyond noble stoicism.’”

The novelist concludes: “The misery business will remain a growth industry. When fiction goes real, reality will need a more resistant strain of fiction.”

It’s hard to say where Powers comes down on this debate. His skill is that he presents both arguments forcefully and leaves it up to the reader.

Powers is the author of nine novels. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and the James Fennimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He teaches a graduate course in multimedia authoring, as well as an undergraduate course on the mechanics of narrative, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is the Swanlund Professor of English

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Lessons from NaNoWriMo

My first National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) is in the books. In case you don’t know what Nanowrimo is, it’s a contest where the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, starting on November 1. The idea is to strive for quantity, not quality. I uploaded the first draft of my novel, Bonus Baby, on November 29. It weighed in at 53,083 words. Nanowrimo teaches lots of lessons for first-timers. Here are some:

  • Plan ahead. Start with a well-developed plot that has the potential for numerous scenes and dramatic developments. Keep in mind the number of scenes it will take to reach 50,000 words. The average daily word count required is 1,667 words. If your scenes tend to run between 1,500 and 2,000 words, you will need to develop between 25 and 30 scenes to attain the magic number.
  • Be flexible. Since quantity is the goal, feel free to experiment. Write a scene from different points of view. If you want to go off on a tangent, do it. Deadlines force the writer to find creative solutions to plot problems. You may end up inventing a new subplot or a new character. That’s okay. Make mid-course adjustments. You don’t have to stop and think about it. For me, being flexible also meant finding a way to write when our state got slammed by a freak October snow storm that resulted in the loss of power for nine days. I wrote by hand. I took my laptop to Starbucks. I wrote in the morning, which I had never done.
  • Keep moving forward. This one is really important. You cannot afford to spend time working over the same scene or trying to come up with just the right word or phrase. Perfect is the enemy of the good. If a scene isn’t everything you want, you need to move on.
  • Get to the finish line. Complete your story, even if it’s only 20,000 words. That sense of accomplishment is worth the effort.
  • Reach out to other Nanowrimo’ers in your region. I met a lot of great people and learned a lot by attending writing sessions, participating in online forums, and it’s comforting to know you are not alone.
  • Remember at all times: it’s a first draft. It’s not a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner. You can always go back to it later and fix the problems.

Above all, I found that Nanowrimo teaches discipline and good work habits. It’s easy to blow off your work-in-progress when you come to a roadblock or you just don’t feel like writing. Nanowrimo teaches you the daily writing habit. Although I’m a believer in daily word counts, I tend to write in creative bursts. I may not write for five days and then knock out 7,000 words on the weekend.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Now I need to go somewhere quiet and conjure up a plot for next year’s contest.

Have you ever done National Novel Writing Month? How did you find your experience? What did you learn?

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Book Review: “The Year We Left Home,” By Jean Thompson

I decided to read this book based on a review in The Chicago Tribune. It attracted me because the subject matter was similar to that of my first novel, Small Change, which centered on two families in the Midwest over a period of 30 years. As it turned out, The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson was dissimilar to my book in style and tone, but was a real treat.

Thompson is an acclaimed author of several short story collections and has taught creative writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and other universities. She is a National Book Award finalist.

The Year We Left Home focuses on the Erickson family of Grenada, Iowa. It covers a lot of ground in terms of time (30 years), geography (Chicago, Iowa, Italy, Mexico, Reno and Seattle), and events, on a personal and a national scale. Thompson uses alternating points of view for each chapter to great effect, with much of the story told from the perspective of Ryan Erickson, the second oldest of four children.

The story begins in 1973 at a festive occasion, the wedding reception for the oldest daughter, Anita, who has just married Jeff, a banker from Denver. The joy of the event soon gives way to grim realities. Ryan leaves home to pursue an academic career, but his plans are derailed. Chip, his
cousin, is an addled Vietnam veteran who drifts from city to city, haunted and unsettled. Anita is trapped in a bad marriage with an alcoholic husband. Her younger sister, Torrie, is involved in a tragic accident. Their brother, Blake, stays in town, but wonders what his life might have been if he left town. Their mother, Audrey, struggles to adjust once her children leave home.

Ryan often feels like a detached observer, looking at his family from the outside. Thompson illustrates this perspective with great skill. In an early scene, Ryan is in a car getting high with Chip during a snowstorm. Ryan looks at the snow outside and observed:

“It reminded him of a snow globe, one of those pretty scenes under glass, and then he had the sad, stoned thought that he was outside of the snow globe, looking in. Just as something in him always stood apart, and he was not who people presumed he was.”

As the family members struggle with personal challenges, Thompson chronicles major trends facing the nation, from wars and farm foreclosures to recessions and the technology boom-and-bust, through the prism of the characters.

Each chapter covers a key phase of one of the family member’s life. The chapters function like short stories—each with an arc—yet each chapter flows seamlessly into the story as a whole. Thompson’s prose is simple, but packed with emotional power. Each family member leaves home, but
never leaves the family for good.

Thompson has an insightful, uncluttered writing style. Her simple prose belies the complex and conflicting emotions of the characters. The Erickson siblings, especially Ryan, are both eager to break away from their nuclear families, but find themselves pulled back by the enduring
ties.

The Year We Left Home was one of the most enjoyable and well-crafted novels I’ve read this year.

What are you reading now? How do you like it?

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