Tag Archives: Pulitzer Prize

Author Spotlight: Michael Chabon

Simply put, Michael Chabon is a writer’s writer. When I read his work, there are passages on every page that make me want to stand up and applaud. His gifts are prodigious. Reading popular fiction is like enjoying a snack compared to Michael Chabon’s novels, which are full seven-course meals that leave the reader fully sated.

Born in Washington D.C. in 1963, Chabon burst onto the literary scene with his 1988 “coming of age” novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It was much more than a coming of age novel. It explored the relationship between a distant, but powerful father and his confused post-college son, in which the father provided everything but love and understanding. It delved into sexual identity and the main character’s confusion about his sexual orientation. The main character skirted the line between the post-graduate world and the murky terrain of low-life criminals. And the prose was typical Chabon—brilliant and compelling.

There followed a five-year period in which Chabon worked on a novel that was never published. Fountain City was planned as the follow-up to his debut novel. It was the story of an architect who dreamed of building the perfect baseball park in Miami. Working under deadline pressure, Chabon eventually abandoned the project, then turned around and finished his second novel, Wonder Boys, in an astonishing seven months.

Wonder Boys, published in 1995, focuses on college professor and doomed author Grady Tripp (played by Michael Douglas in the movie). Tripp is laboring over a weighty manuscript that he cannot seem to get into shape for publication. Meanwhile he is having an affair with the wife of a senior official at the college where he works. And he is mentoring a troubled young student.

Chabon’s third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavaler & Clay, saw the author at the peak of his powers. Published in 2000, the novel won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for literature. The story builds on Chabon’s fascination with comic books as it follows two cousins who meet during the throes of the Depression in the late 1930s, but lose touch during World War II. Comic books provide a backdrop for a dark story in which each man struggles to find his soul in a world that is at once welcoming and hostile.

He next published The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in 2007. This is a fine novel that works both as a hardboiled detective story and as a commentary on geopolitics in the Mideast. Set in a fictional Jewish post-war settlement in Alaska, the novel centers on a down-and-out detective who must solve a complex murder.

Chabon’s literary influences include many noted writers of the 20th Century, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Chandler, John Updike, Philip Roth, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

His new novel, Telegraph Avenue, can take its place among his best work. Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Egan (herself a Pulitzer Prize winner), said of Telegraph Avenue, “The novel is equally a tribute to the cinematic style of Quentin Tarrantino, whose films its characters study and discuss, and whose preoccupations pepper its pages: Kung Fu, cinematic allusions and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s; and an interest in the African-American characters and experience.”

It centers on two business partners and dreamers, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a used record store called Brokeland Records, in a section of Oakland that borders Berkeley, a hodgepodge of cultures and ethnicities and political beliefs. The store is threatened by a megamall development (including a used record store) proposed by a former NFL star named Gibson “G Bad” Goode, sort of a cross between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Meanwhile Archy faces major problems on the home front as his teen-age son whom he hasn’t acknowledged returns from Texas to the surprise of his wife, seven months pregnant. Gwen Shanks has problems of her own as the midwife practice she shares with Nat’s wife, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, faces a lawsuit and possible revocation of hospital privileges from a birth gone wrong. As if that’s not enough, Archy’s wayward dad, blaxploitation film star Luther Stallings, is back in town after a stint in prison and is looking to shake down a prominent Oakland City Councilman who is the key to the development deal.

In one passage, the reader sees Archy at his lowest: “Archy was tired of Nat, and he was tired of Gwen and her pregnancy, with all the unsuspected depths of his insufficiency that it threatened to reveal. He was tired of Brokeland, and of black people, and of white people, and of all their schemes and grudges, their frontings, hustles, and corruptions. Most of all, he was tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.”

Telegraph Avenue  is pure Chabon—robust, scintillating and thoroughly satisfying—but I will review it soon on this blog.

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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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Author Spotlight: Anne Tyler

This is the first in an occasional series of articles on authors I admire.

Anne Tyler, who recently published her 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is one of the most prolific and respected authors of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Breathing Lessons, (1988) and Pulitzer finalist, The Accidental Tourist (1985), both of which were made into movies, Tyler writes with uncommon depth and uncanny perceptiveness about families and the struggle for individual identity within the whole of the nuclear family.

In a profile on Tyler that included a rare interview with her, Jessica Strawser of Writer’s Digest wrote: “Her books are about families and the complications therein—marital discourse, sibling rivalry, resentment, and underneath it all, love. Tyler’s eccentric and endearing characters are so intensely real, so thoroughly developed, they come to life on the page—both for her as she writes and for the reader, who suddenly can see a bit of his own mother, father, brother or even self in their blurted-out words, their unspoken impulses, their mistakes, and with any luck, their moments of triumph.”

Read Anne Tyler’s Tips on Creating Strong (Yet Flawed) Characters in Writer’s Digest

Her unique style is on display in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which Tyler considers her finest work. In a review of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in her book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, fellow author and literature professor Jane Smiley wrote of Tyler’s style: “Tyler is subtle and retiring as an author. Her style is precise and insightful, her incidents are full of interest and psychological weight, and her structure works to lay bare the workings of the family.”

Although I found Dinner a satisfying work, my favorite Anne Tyler novels are Earthly Possessions (1977) and The Ladder of Years (1995). The two novels explore similar terrain—a  mother who is unappreciated by her family and has lost her sense of self. In both cases, the main character leaves her family, which in the hands of a less skilled writer, could come across as an act of selfishness, but in these two works it evokes empathy in the reader. In Earthly Possessions, Charlotte Emory decides to leave her husband. She goes to the bank to withdraw some money and is kidnapped. She decides during her ordeal that she doesn’t want to return to her family and actually begins to like her kidnappers. In The Ladder of Years, Delia Grinstead walks off the beach during a family vacation in Delaware and simply begins a new life without her family. Her long journey culminates in self-discovery.

As an author Tyler doesn’t follow trends or write big, grandiose novels. Her subject matter is the every-day travails of families and individuals. She once said that, “there aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel,” words that are anathema to most agents and publishers. And yet there are few authors who can match the consistent high quality of her work.

In the Writer’s Digest interview, Tyler said she doesn’t think of her audience while she is writing a novel. “I’ve learned that it is best not to think about readers while I’m writing. I just try to sink into the world I’m describing. But at the very end, of course, I have to think about readers. I read my final draft pretending I’m someone else, just to make sure that what I’ve written makes sense from outside,” she said.

Tyler was born in Minneapolis but grew up in North Carolina. She graduated from Duke University at the age of 19 and completed her graduate work at Columbia University in Russian studies. She lives in Baltimore, where many of her works are set.

What is your favorite Anne Tyler novel and why?

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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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