Monday, May 31, 2010

Another Portland novel: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

I just finished reading Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, one of those books where you're very aware that you're reading a first novel, it's not perfect and there are moments that jar, but it's also something special and you're glad it got brought into the world.

Also, it's set in Portland!

This was the second book I've read recently that was set in Portland, the other one being The Mozart Summer. I didn’t know that either one was set in Portland until I started reading it: coincidence! Both books have scenes set in Laurelhurst Park. Both books have scenes set in Laurelhurst Park in the middle of the night!

Much of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky takes place in northeast Portland, a northeast Portland post-Vanport, pre-gentrification. When Rachel is eleven, she moves from Chicago to live with her grandmother at 4725 Northeast Cleveland Avenue (a block from where I was living a year ago, on the 4800 block of Cleveland), two blocks away from the Wonderbread factory (since closed), and we learn that:
Grandma was the first colored woman to buy a house in this part of Portland. That’s what Grandma says. When she moved in, the German dairy store closed [here’s some tangentially related Portland history], and the Lutheran church became African Methodist. Amen. That part’s Grandma too. All of Grandma’s neighbors are black now. And most came from the South around the same time Grandma did.
By the time Rachel is a teenager, the neighborhood has changed some more:
“Them closing the drive-through dairy was one thing,” Grandma says. “But not feeling safe in your own home . . . It was the best of the best black folk living around here when I first come. And the rest of them hard workers, mostly from the shipyards—not like them kids ruinin things just to get some new sneakers. Look at us now.”

Even I can see it. Things just aren’t the same. Across the street Mrs. Lewis put bars on her windows, and the neighbor next door got a big dog. There have been three break-ins on this street in the last month. On the block where there was a real grocery store, now there’s just a convenience store, a liquor store, a church, and a place that you can buy hair. The closest grocery store is a twenty-minute bus ride away.
An interesting book. Worth reading. Really ambitious structurally, with too many points of view, and a lot of unraveled threads left hanging (Aunt Loretta? What happened?), but Durrow does a lot with the huge amount of material and emotion and drama she tackles. Plus you could argue that’s how life is: structurally ambitious with too many points of view and unraveled threads hanging, too much material and emotion and drama. Hard to pull off in a novel, but completely captivating.

I need to finish this upstate New York novel I'm writing, so I can start a Portland novel.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Still listing writers. Also determining factors.

I'm still working on my list, talking it over with people (thanks to Laurel, R.E., Megan, for listening to this lately). I've realized that I do need some definition of influential--or several definitions--and I also have to figure out the distinction between influential writer and influential book. I think Antoine de Saint-Exupery will make it onto my list on the basis of The Little Prince alone, but I haven't read any of his other books. Same with Harper Lee and Anne Frank. I've read a lot of Charles Simic's work, but if he ends up on my list, it will be because of Dimestore Alchemies, his prose poems about Joseph Cornell. It's a book that's meant a lot to me as another lens through which to view Cornell, one of my favorite artists and a very odd guy. It's also a book that's hugely influenced how I think about writing about art.

Recent, late additions to the tentative list:
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald (Again, he's important primarily for one book, The Great Gatsby--but this also illustrates one of the trickiest bits of trying to make a comprehensive, influences-throughout-my-life list; I still think it's a great book in so many ways, and it was interesting to reread it after living in New York for a while and knowing the city, having a sense of how geography helps to define the characters and their relationships, something I missed about the book reading it growing up in Minneapolis. Also, I'd read it at least twice before we read it in English class my junior year of high school, but Mr. Shandorf helped me see things in the book that I didn't know were there, and I think of reading Gatsby in that class as one of my first and most formative experiences of really understanding the depth and layers you can find in a great novel. So I think I have to include him.)

  • Lewis Carroll (An amazing oversight!)

  • Langston Hughes (Hugely influential, but... top 100? still debating)

  • Betty McDonald (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle) (Absolutely an oversight--these are books I loved, my sister loved, our parents read to us, and Emilyn and I still reference them. If that's not seminally influential, what is?)

  • Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking) (See Betty McDonald.)

  • Peggy Parish (Amelia Bedelia) (See Betty McDonald.)

  • Harper Lee

  • Joy Williams? (I love her stories but I can't think, now, of just how important she was, then--which in this case is college, I think?)

  • Wallace Stegner (An oversight. Except, though I love Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety... a hundred writers is turning out not to be as many as I'd thought it was. And honestly, depending on the determining factors in our definition of "influential," and how truly comprehensive I'm able to be, the anonymous author of Go Ask Alice might end up outranking Wallace Stegner in a seminal list. He's been more important recently, but I read that book so many times as a kid.)

  • Grace Paley (Another huge oversight.)

  • Charles Baxter (I've read several of his novels and loved them, but he would be on this list for one short story: "Gryphon." I read it first as a kid when it was anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1986 (I was ten in 1986, and I remember finding this book on a shelf in my house. I tended to read random books I found on shelves in my house, which explains a lot about this list.)

Wow. I just looked up the table of contents for The Best American Short Stories 1986, and it's impressive how many of the writers on my list I read here for the first time. I didn't realize how much my tendency to read random books explained about this list. Talk about early influences:

* Basil from her garden / Donald Barthelme
* Gryphon / Charles Baxter
* Janus / Ann Beattie
* The convict / James Lee Burke
* Star food / Ethan Canin
* Gossip / Frank Conroy
* Communist / Richard Ford
* Bad company / Tess Gallagher
* Today will be a quiet day / Amy Hempel
* Doe season / David Michael Kaplan
* Three thousand dollars / David Lipsky
* Sportsmen / Thomas McGuane
* All my relations / Christopher McIlroy
* Monsieur les deux chapeaux / Alice Munro
* Skin angels / Jessica Neely
* Invisible life / Kent Nelson
* Telling / Grace Paley
* Lawns / Mona Simpson
* Health / Joy Williams
* The rich brother / Tobias Wolff.

It was edited by Raymond Carver. Also interesting. I imagine I thought Alice Munro was really boring when I was ten. But I remember several of these stories distinctly. I remember reading and rereading Mona Simpson's "Lawns," about a klepto college student who worked in the school post office and stole packages (I just looked it up, and yep, that's the one). And yeah, "Gryphon." Indelible marks. Which is probably one feature of the most influential writer. I have to figure out my criteria. My rubric.

This list is a sort of autobiography, really. I was thinking I need to look through the book lists in old zines, and I probably should look at old journals, too. But--zines, maybe. Old journals, not going there. We'll do the best we can with what we have to work with.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My hundred most influential writers (developing the list).

I'm trying very hard to make an honest list of the hundred writers who have most influenced me. And that's just generally influenced me, not influenced me as a writer--though that's one way I've been influenced, certainly.

First I brainstormed, then I looked at my bookshelves at home and at school. Then I brainstormed some more. I know there are a lot of writers who have been important to me over the years whose books aren't represented in my collection anymore: Alice Walker, for example, or E. Annie Proulx. Tom Robbins and Erica Jong. I'm trying to remember who meant so much to me. As usual, this is at least partly related to teaching. I taught middle school for four years, and now teach high school English. Right now I'm still brainstorming, but I also want to code the list with when the book was/became important to me, and to some degree, how it was important. Neil Gaiman, for instance, is primarily significant to me because I learned a lot about teaching literature from reading Coraline with my sixth graders in Brooklyn. I didn't expect my students to love the book as much as I did; I thought it would seem too foreign, but it reached them, it transcended some social differences and they connected with it and we used it to really study literature in a meaningful way, talking about symbols and analyzing the characters and the structure of the book in a way that made me proud--of myself as a teacher, but more of my students.

e early literacy
es elementary school
ms middle school
hs high school
c college
20 20’s
s Syracuse
30 30’s
t teaching

Early literacy is when most of the picture book authors became important to me, but this is a blurred category for me. I'm not sure it's separate from elementary school. Rather, I think there's mostly overlap. Erica Jong is tagged hs, because I didn't really read her after that. Beckett is hs and c, and maybe also ms. Some of these I can't remember exactly. But I'm having fun with it, and chronology is interesting to think about.

So, I have 130 so far, and I've already eliminated some (like I love Ishiguro but honestly, the anonymous author of Go Ask Alice was more influential, and even she might not make the top 100). I think there are also a few big gaps. The last six I thought to add to my list were Robert McCloskey, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, E. Annie Proulx, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Lois Duncan. This suggests that other gaps must exist as well. I've only included three zine writers, and I think I might just leave it at that. I'm not sure any of them will make the top 100--probably just Cindy Crabb who writes Doris, which has been important to me since high school. There aren't many poets--Shel Silverstein, Lucille Clifton (though more for her memoir work), Anne Carson (more for her translations), Dylan Thomas (mostly for Under Milkwood), Yusef Komunyakaa... and there are maybe too many playwrights (including Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aristophanes--but you can't just say "the ancient Greeks," can you? and they were all important--I left Aeschylus out because I didn't care about him so much, but the others were all important in their own ways: Electra and Electra and Medea and Lysistrata...).

At some point, I'll have to figure out how to distinguish between important author and important book. I only ever read Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, but I've read both those books multiple times (I've read Catch-22 at least five or six times since high school, maybe more, and I've probably read Caddie Woodlawn upwards of twenty times, since it was one of the [relatively] few books I owned as a kid, and didn't just get from the library), and they've certainly influenced me and my worldview in multiple ways. Same with Anne Frank.


Now I'm looking at lists of award-winners. First, the Newberys. Then the Caldecotts. Next, the Nobel Prize list, then National Book Award winners. Which does reflect my evolution as a reader, honestly. And to some degree, what's important. I'm mostly checking the NBA lists for gaps in my own list (also, the NBA website is so stupidly organized--Newberys and Caldecotts, you can skim, but NBA, you have to click on every single year?!).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Mozart Season

It’s so hard to describe that feeling of escape that you get when you really get sucked into reading a book, or writing a story, or when you’re completely focused on dancing and in your body, out of your head—it’s not even a feeling of escape, exactly, it’s a feeling of completely being there. I love Allegra’s description of practicing her violin:
I cleaned up the sandwich mess and went to the music room and practiced. I worked on Kreutzer no. 34, which is a good way to insult yourself if you haven’t worked on it lately. I played it for almost an hour. It can torture your fingers and it’s good for you.

It’s also very useful in distracting you from your problems, because you can’t even think about them while you’re playing it. Kind of like skiing: you keep your mind totally on what you’re doing and give your mental problems a rest. You keep your mind right where your body is. I don’t understand it all totally, but that’s what you do. You keep doing it till you get convinced.

And I love their family friend Deirdre’s explanation of what you have to do if you want to be your own kind of artist, or singer, or dancer, or violinist. I also love Deirdre. She’s one of the characters in this book who makes it more than a children’s book: the crazy family friend, Allegra’s mother’s friend since they were children, who’s gone through some rough times. Allegra’s father, anticipating her visit, says, “Only two more days till we get Deirdre’s Doldrums.” Allegra’s teenage brother says, “Deirdre’s Delirium is more like it.”

But Allegra is at an age when she can appreciate and connect with Deirdre in a different way than ever before. Twelve is like that. They also make a connection through their relationship to music and its importance to them. Deirdre says:
Allegra, here's something about doing music--or painting a picture or anything. When you're doing it, you have to remember everything you've ever learned, and simultaneously forget all of it and do something totally new. Because if you do the first part and not the second, you're making music or art just like everybody else's. It's not your own.

She goes on to explain,
When I lived in Boston, I used to watch the Celtics a lot. They do the same exact thing--when they're at their best. It's the same with your Trail Blazers in Portland. You watch one of those beautiful shots go exploding down through the basket and that's what's going on. That guy has in his memory every basket he's ever shot--and at the same instant he's making up a new one. The divine inspiration of the NBA.

I can't put all the gems in this book into this entry. Anyway, they're better when you read them in the context of it. Allegra and Deirdre make music in the Rose Garden in Washington Park--a kind of music that isn't like their usual violin playing and opera singing. Allegra starts going for late-night bike rides through Laurelhurst Park, until a neighbor sees her and tells on her. She meets a dancer and finds something he's lost. Her best friends come home from their summer camps and visits to family and that good kind of friendship is as essential to this novel as Allegra's twelve-year-old relationships with her mother and father and teenage brother, and their relationships with each other. Allegra's grandmother sends her something very important. And the music is through all of it: free concerts in Laurelhurst Park and Pioneer Square, the gorge, and of course in the music room.

Good novels about art and making art are so few and far between. Novels about children and childhood and the revelations of growing up are all over the place. But those that both children and adults should read, and return to later for the new insights that were there the first time but were buried under the first insights--those novels are much more rare. The Mozart Summer is both, and I had so much fun reading it for the first time. I stopped myself from starting over again at the beginning, immediately. It'll be even better next time if I wait first.

(And did I mention it's set in Portland? So I had that other pleasure of the real picture in my head, a version of the true picture.)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Far from Xanadu

So yeah, put nearly all of Julie Anne Peters' other novels on hold at the library after reading Luna, and of course they all arrived at once. First I picked up By the Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead, but I was like, "No, Elissa, you're not allowed." As you may guess from the title, it's about a very suicidal girl. Suicide is not one of my favorite topics--it's not among most people's favorite topics, but since my dad killed himself when I was nineteen, it's plummeted to the bottom of my list.

I read a little bit, to see if I could handle it. I even flipped to the end, to see if she killed herself. Far as I can tell, it's an ambiguous ending. Regardless, I didn't need to spend the time with Daelyn, in her head. I wasn't about to do that to myself. I don't stop reading a book very often, but I shut this one and returned it to the library after the first couple of chapters. I didn't want it in my house. So number two was RAGE: A Love Story. Queer girl in high school, just barely starting to come out, has a long-standing huge crazy crush on one of the badass dykes at her school, one of the "LesBo Dykes, or Les Beau Dykes"--and things start to happen, but the reader can tell long before Johanna can (or really before Johanna wants to) that the LesBo Dyke, Reeve, is really big trouble. Like, big trouble beyond what that usually means in a teen novel. Really big trouble like physically abusive. Oh and also hottie abusive dyke's brother appears to have Asperger's, her mom's a crackhead, and mom's string of abusive boyfriends also abuse hottie abusive dyke and her brother. I felt like I was reading Go Ask Alice. I quit reading somewhere around when Johanna went to school with a black eye. I couldn't do it.

So then I picked up Far from Xanadu, which an awesome teen librarian friend had said was her favorite of Peters' books. First four words: "After my dad's suicide." First sentence: "After my dad's suicide, the town council decided to remove the bottom portion of the ladder from the Coalton water tower." Mike's drunk of a dad jumped off the water tower in the small Kansas town they live in. But the first scene is her (yeah, Mike's a girl) climbing the water tower, using the ladder she and her best friend hid in the grass at the foot of it, so she can watch the sunrise from the top. "Dad said angels painted the sky at dawn and dusk. Dad was a liar, but I could almost believe him on that one."

I almost took Far from Xanadu back with the other two, but I didn't. It was hard to read, but so good, and so true. Also, there are plenty of books about those crisis moments: hearing the gunshot, finding the body. Dealing with the shock, the breakdown. But this is a book about Mike two years later, still there, still dealing with it. Or not dealing. It's about her rough relationship with her mom, which just gets rougher after her dad dies. About her relationship with her brother, and what they lay on each other or don't lay on each other, the ways they watch each other hurt and can't really reach each other. Besides, in their family, the Szabos, they don't ask for help. As her brother says, "It's not our way."

Far from Xanadu was really hard for me to read. But it's awesome. I'm glad it's in the world. Nice to read a book about grieving someone two years out: Mike is still thinking about her dad all the time, he's fucking up how she's living her life, she's not doing things she wants to do to spite him, blaming him for choices she can't make.

Oh, and Mike is gay. And crushed out on a straight girl. But this isn't a novel about that, not only. She just is that way, and is dealing with it, and it's part of it. Like how it happens in real life.

I'm reminded of how I gave Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret to a student my first year teaching, and when we talked about it, she was telling me how much she loved it, how much she loved all the stuff about religion and figuring out what you believe. I didn't remember any of that. I remembered Margaret getting her period, and wearing a pad on a belt. But Khazanah is Muslim, and she read a different book than the one I read. She read a book about a girl who is very close to her Jewish grandmother, and whose Christian grandparents on the other side disowned her mother when she married a Jew. A girl who has her own private relationship with her own God, and can't figure out how all of it fits together, fits her. Just as many people will read Far from Xanadu as a story about first love, maybe, or home, or the dreams you have for your life--and yeah, family is a big part of it, but oh my god can you believe she...?!?! But to me, it's about a girl who lost her dad in an awful unexpected way that's left her furious and heartbroken, and two years later she's only starting to sort some of it out and take her own life back. But she is sorting it out, and she is moving forward.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Writers Instead of Writing

I haven't been avoiding writing so much as I've been sucked into a novel that I wanted to finish. And while I was reading it, I knew it could only help my own novel. Luna, by Julie Anne Peters, is a great YA story from the POV of Regan, the younger sister of Luna, a senior in high school who is coming out as trans.

I read this interesting interview with Peters, where she talks about her choice of narrator in Luna and how it was largely because she didn't feel comfortable writing from Luna's POV, not being trans herself.

Somehow I ended up at this interview with Amy Hempel (I will spare you the chain of events), and I liked this bit of advice very much, both as a writer and as a teacher:

Dave: When you teach creative writing, is there one piece of advice that seems to resonate more than others, seems to work, with students?

Hempel: Not so much a piece of advice as a question to keep in mind, which is the most basic of questions: Why are you telling me this? Someone out there will be asking, and you better have a very compelling answer, or reason.

There are people who have been raised by loving parents to believe that the world awaits their every thought and sentence, and I'm not one of them. So I respond to that. Is this essential? The question might be, Is this something only you can say—or, only you can say it this way? Is this going to make anyone's life better, or make anyone's day better? And I don't mean the writer's day.


And now I'll go work on my novel. Right after I put all of Peters' other novels on hold at the library. & looks like I'll be revisiting Amy Hempel's collected stories, too. Yay.