Summer Reading

Between the post-MFA letdown, and, unanticipated health distractions, it’s been hard to maintain any semblance of a summertime writing schedule. But reading in service of craft counts as some form of literary discipline…right? Okay, I admit it: for a book nerd, reading is no more taxing than sipping a piña colada, and, at least my time spent turning pages allowed me to pretend my summer hiatus wasn’t a total waste.

So here’s the rundown on books read from July 10th through August 31st:

She’s Come Undone   By Wally Lamb

(http://www.amazon.com/Shes-Come-Undone-Oprahs-Book/dp/0671021001/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441031811&sr=1-1&keywords=she%27s+come+undone)

I hadn’t read any of Lamb’s work, but given his status as one of Vermont College of Fine Art’s most prominent alumni, I couldn’t avoid him forever. And after he read a new piece during my graduation week (sharing the stage with Mark Doty, whose poems are also exceptional), and followed it up with a rousing informal talk the next day, I figured what the hell. She’s Come Undone, Lamb’s first published novel, and an Oprah’s Book Club success, seemed as good a place to start as any.

The novel raises a not-uncommon question for the critical reader: Can skillful prose outshine a protagonist who, while complex and well drawn, is nonetheless fairly unlikeable? That’s what I kept asking myself as I followed Dolores Price through here myriad misadventures. Lamb is a fabulous writer, his prose flowing with vivid description and dramatic scenes, but I never found myself sympathetic to Dolores. By the time she’s raped at 13 by her idolized (and married) upstairs neighbor, a horrific event that should’ve justified her subsequent twisted behavior, I still found it hard to understand her choices, let alone root for her.

Maybe that was Lamb’s point: the arc of a hard-earned dysfunctional character’s life doesn’t follow a reader’s preconceived notion of her journey to redemption. But while I kept turning pages, and can’t say I disliked the novel, I put it on the shelf filled with ambivalence whether I would read another Wally Lamb novel.

War Memorials   By Clint McCown

(http://www.amazon.com/War-Memorials-Clint-McCown/dp/0618128476/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441033770&sr=1-1&keywords=War+Memorials)

I have to admit that it’s hard for me to be objective when it comes to Clint McCown. Clint was one of my instructors at VCFA, but moreover, he was the faculty member charged with first emailing me after my acceptance into the program, an imprint I proudly honored throughout my MFA studies. Not only is he an outstanding instructor and lecturer, but his fiction also flows effortlessly and is filled with humanity and humor. I read his most recent novel, Haints, (http://www.amazon.com/Haints-American-Fiction-Clint-McCown/dp/089823266X/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441130466&sr=1-6&keywords=haints+stay), soon after enrolling at VCFA. I was taken by the strong sense of place, as well as a narrative told from 14 different points-of-view; I knew I’d be disappointed if I didn’t have the chance to work with Clint during my studies. I was lucky: I experienced his talent as both an instructor and workshop leader.

In spare moments I read his first collection, The Member-Guest, (http://www.amazon.com/The-Member-Guest-Clint-McCown/dp/0385476558/ref=pd_sim_14_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=03JZ5E0XQH155R9BPES9&dpSrc=sims&dpST=_AC_UL480_SR342%2C480_), an engaging collection of linked stories set around a small town golf club’s big annual tournament. Still, I graduated intent on reading all of Clint’s published fiction.

War Memorials did not disappoint. It follows the misadventures of Nolan Vann, the somewhat wayward son of the town’s celebrated WWII war hero and insurance broker. After a falling out with his old man (resulting from forging his father’s signature to backdate insurance coverage after a storm leveled a tree into his house), Nolan seems to pinball between odd jobs (starting as a repo man) and a rogue’s gallery of characters, while trying to piece together his own purpose and somehow win back his estranged wife (who may be pregnant, not by him). He is certainly filled with wounds and complications that are steadily revealed through the narrative, but quite unlike Dolores Price in She’s Come Undone, Nolan is genuinely vulnerable and filled with a bittersweet humor that easily engenders reader support. The story moves along at a brisk pace, not least because Clint’s chapter breaks compel turning the page. There’s a lot going on in this relatively brief novel, a novel that, like Haints, I look forward to visiting again soon.

Breakfast of Champions By Kurt Vonnegut

(http://www.amazon.com/Breakfast-Champions-Novel-Kurt-Vonnegut/dp/0385334206/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441134122&sr=1-1&keywords=breakfast+of+champions)

I’ve learned the hard way not to underestimate the complexities of a Vonnegut novel. I chose Slaughterhouse Five as one of my subjects for my MFA critical thesis on non-linear plot structure, my thinking being: no problem, I’ve read it a couple times, easy peasy… Yeah, right. After multiple additional readings and detailed, page-by-page notes, I had enough material for my paper, but I wouldn’t pretend to have uncovered every nuance in this masterpiece.

I believe part of this stems from the breezy, personal, and often humorous narration that is a hallmark of Vonnegut’s writing. He—the narrator—is never far from the surface of the story, forcing the reader to always consider what is fiction and reality. Of course, invariably his books are just damn fun to read, which makes the first pass outright pleasurable, but necessitates significant, deeper study.

Such is the case when trying to get a handle on Breakfast of Champions; one reading is not enough! The plot follows the inexorable collision of Dwayne Hoover, successful and soon-to-be-insane (Vonnegut tells us such in the first pages) Midwest auto dealer, and Vonnegut’s often-revisited alter ego, obscure sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout. Along the way the story explores themes of racism, greed, free will, war, penis size (!), and the inadequacy of language to fully express them—there are even simple line drawings that in their own minimalist way illuminate the frequently meandering prose. In the last third of the book Vonnegut seems to entirely drop any pretense of the fictional dream, a break that comes across as both jarring and awkward. Is this in service to his early stated goal of clearing his literary and intellectual mind? Like I said, there’s lots going on in a Vonnegut book; the initial enjoyment of his playful, funny, and distinctive prose and plot simply demand further readings. Not my favorite of his works, but still well worth the effort.

Stay Up With Me: Stories By Tom Barbash

(http://www.amazon.com/Stay-Up-Me-Tom-Barbash/dp/0062258133/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441384926&sr=1-1&keywords=Tom+Barbash)

During dinner at a restaurant on my last day at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my first semester instructor, Dominic Stansberry (http://www.amazon.com/Domenic-Stansberry/e/B001IR3FPG/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0), suggested this story collection, particularly since many of the stories feature New York City characters, as does the novel I worked on throughout my MFA studies. Bottom line: good collection, although in actuality only five of the thirteen stories can be classified as set in NYC. Most of the rest are set in upstate New York, their tone (and in some cases, theme) reminding me more of Russell Banks than Richard Russo. The NYC stories were of greatest interest and offered situations and characters I found both original and familiar. Of course, these tales are based primarily in Manhattan’s West Side, their tone and sensibility a strange, yet enjoyable contrast to the memories of someone who grew up on the East Side.

The Financial Lives of the Poets By Jess Walter

(http://www.amazon.com/Financial-Lives-Poets-Novel/dp/0061916056/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441385673&sr=1-1&keywords=the+financial+lives+of+the+poets)

I was a latecomer to the pleasures of reading Jess Walter. Only after I’d become enthralled with Beautiful Ruins (http://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Ruins-Novel-Jess-Walter/dp/0061928178/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441638258&sr=1-1&keywords=beautiful+ruins), his most recent and widely acclaimed novel, did I attempt to explore his earlier work. The Financial Lives of the Poets sat on my “To-Read” shelf throughout my MFA studies, waiting patiently for its turn. I wish I’d picked it up sooner!

Published soon after the financial crisis of 2008, the novel follows the first-person misadventures of Matt Prior, or “Slippers,” as he is hilariously nicknamed early on, a frustrated news reporter whose slide toward financial Armageddon began prior to the start of the novel when he quit his job to attempt establishing a web site offering financial news and advice through verse. While this failed venture serves as an insight into Matt’s fantastical ambitions (itself a reflection of so many, supposedly, intelligent Americans ahead of the crisis), and sets up the novel’s title and the whimsical inclusion of Matt’s oddball financial verse throughout, its conceit is pretty far-fetched, borderline absurd. But I didn’t really care. This is a delightful read that starts with a flawed, yet sympathetic character, who feels justification to make one lousy decision after another—most of them leading to hysterical plot twists and his continued descent beyond the point of no return. (For anyone who once partook in the inhalation of a certain herb now legal in Colorado and Washington, Matt’s central adventure will illicit understanding and, often, outright laughter.)

The Financial Lives of the Poets, like Beautiful Ruins, begs the question of whether or not “up-market” or “popular fiction” can also be considered literary. In the case of Beautiful Ruins, I would argue the structure alone (which took Walter fifteen years to construct!) would qualify—but then how could I say otherwise since I used it as one of the subjects analyzed in my MFA critical thesis. By comparison, The Financial Lives of the Poets is more conventionally (i.e. linear) structured, and remains in Matt’s point-of-view throughout—but what a voice! It’s this feature alone that forces me to believe the novel will remain in print for a long, long time. The need to re-read multiple times to uncover nuanced themes is mostly unnecessary, Matt’s travails quite overtly reflect the angst—and inadequate solutions—for a frightening time, but the originality and thorough development of Matt Prior establishes him as a character of lasting memories. And, for me, I’d love to see Jess Walter bring him back for another romp sometime in the future.

Next post: the audiobooks of summer…

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