Tuesday, December 29, 2009

reads in progress

Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs. Not yet finished, but I still concede a wee bit of disappointment—if only because I'm so dazzled by her short stories.

Paul Yoon's Once the Shore: artful and enchanting narratives by former fellow Bread Loafer.

Slowly chiseling away at Darwin's The Descent of Man, as research for a novel I'm writing, and The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, in preparation for a nonfiction course I'll be teaching in the spring.

And I've definitely overestimated what I thought I could read during winter break ... Have a back-breaking bag of paperbacks that will likely have to wait their turn. Sigh.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Literary classics

Recently revisited two canonical novels after significant time away. A post on To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm to follow shortly...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Julie Otsuka + "He that can have Patience can have what he will" (-Ben Franklin)

I just watched
Julie Otsuka, the last Single Voice Series participant at Allegheny College for 2009. I am shaken and stirred.

Otsuka's first novel When the Emperor Was Divine follows a single family to the Japanese internment camps during WWII.

Before sharing an excerpt from her next project, Otsuka did something I've never seen done at a reading before—at least not before the official "reading": she talked at length about her family history and its influence on her work, shared bits of her bio, and offered insight into her writing process. It was as almost like an "A" without the "Q": she intuited the questions that may be asked and answered them.

I appreciated the contextualization of the author and her work. In fact, I was nearly as compelled by how she came to writing in the first place as I was by the gorgeous and gripping first-person-plural prose she eventually read. (I researched her biography further after I got home.) Julie arrived at Yale in the '80s thinking she'd study history. Then she took an art class and discovered a natural aptitude for sculpture and graduated with a degree in fine arts. Afterwards she pursued an MFA in painting, but plagued by self-doubt, she left after only a few months. It wasn't until years later, after trying and deserting the visual arts yet again, that she took a writing class ... and applied to an MFA program in fiction. Her first (slender) novel took her five-and-a-half years to write. Julie said that she labors over the diction and rhythm of each section, sentence, word, that she's lucky to write a page a week. It took her nine months to form the opening lines of a chapter in her first book.

Otsuka made clear that the writing process can be elusive and thrilling and befuddling. It can teach you things about your narrative that you didn't know and didn't plan. Her second novel, for example, emerged after she laid out sketches she'd done over a year and recognized a story arc. The book's narrated by a group of mail-order "picture brides" who sail from Japan to the States, simultaneously lose their virginities to their new husbands, give birth to children, and reluctantly relocate to internment camps in 1942. Her second novel ends where her first novel begins.

As an early career writer with a love of language and a host of unformed of half-formed or slippery fragments of narrative, with notebooks of sketches and indefinite ideas, I take comfort in her diligence and patience. Otsuka wasn't an early bloomer, but she has intensely important stories to tell. Her work is worth the wait.

Further reading: Random House interview & GoldSea

Friday, October 16, 2009

people of the book-on-cd

Another long drive, another audio book.

I blame Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book for my speeding ticket on I-80.

Immediate thoughts: intriguing premise, a bit tangential at times, a bit contrived. The text dramatizes an imagined history of a Passover Haggadah discovered in war-torn Sarajevo in the '90s. In short, an Australian book conservator is called upon to restore it, and each of her findings—a stain, a hair, a butterfly wing—yield separate narratives that trace the manuscript's history.

For what it's worth, I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

A few other points of note:

1) I think I'm attached to the way words look. After hearing the name of a Bosnian character repeated over and again, I must've visualized the spelling. That's the only way I can explain how shocked—and disturbed!—I was to flip open a paper copy in a bookstore and learn that leading man Azrin was actually Ozren and I'd been mis-picturing him (his name) all along! Just one more element lost in the visual-audio translation.

2) If you're an actor and plan to dramatize a book about Jews that contains several well-known Hebrew words, find out how to pronounce them before you record. Otherwise listeners may find themselves shouting at their car speakers in frustration. Hypothetically speaking. (For the record, "Shabbat" is not pronounced "Shay-bot.")

Monday, October 5, 2009

veteran visitor

On Monday October 5th, Iraq-war vet and Meadville resident Brian McCauley spoke to the students of English 200: The Literary Response to War at Allegheny College. Brian was generous and brave enough to share the intimate—and often harrowing—experience of his service and its aftermath. Spoiler alert: His personal story includes residing in Saddam's former palace in Tikrit, earning a purple heart for surviving a car bomb, and managing the myriad aftereffects of his time abroad.

In advance of his visit, Brian was kind enough to read a few stories from the book our class studied in depth: Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Our discussion began with his thoughts on the text.

The video totals about an hour and is broken into two parts.

Brian McCauley: Part I from Courtney Zoffness on Vimeo.

Brian McCauley: Part II from Courtney Zoffness on Vimeo.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"literary journalism" redefined

What happens when prominent authors and poets replace staff reporters at a renowned newspaper? At Israel's oldest Hebrew daily, Haaretz, it meant the weather report emerged as a sonnet, and the stock market report, covered by children's book author Avri Herling, played out this way:

“Everything’s okay. Everything’s like usual. Yesterday trading ended. Everything’s okay. The economists went to their homes, the laundry is drying on the lines, dinners are waiting in place… "

Read more about the switcheroo Haaretz pulled off in June 2009 here and here.

This might be my favorite literary experiment of all time.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

gratuitous self-promotion

Published in Allegheny College Campus newspaper.

Monday, September 14, 2009

roth + roadtrips

On a recent 500-mile round-trip road trip between Meadville, PA, and Skaneateles, NY, I listened to Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. Books on CD are my new discovery and obsession; I'm curious to see if my retention of characters and plot points and conversations is better or worse as a result of listening to the text instead of reading it. (Quiz me in a couple of weeks!) Exit Ghost, which takes its title from a stage command in several Shakespeare plays, is the ninth and final novel that features Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.

While there are several intriguing facets in this book, a few linger:

1) The secondary characters in this novel have life stories that are far more interesting than Zuckerman's. These include: a seductive, adulterous young female writer; a Holocaust survivor with terminal brain cancer; and a late writer by the name of E.I. Lonoff, who supposedly had an incestuous affair with his sister. By comparison, Zuckerman is an anti-social novelist. He's ironic and analytical and sensitive, yes, but aside from reporting or commenting on the lives of these other individuals or inviting them to divulge their stories, Zuckerman mostly just bemoans his ailing prostate, indulges his nostalgia, and laments the things he wants but cannot have.

Which begs the question: How is this Nathan's story? What justifies his position as narrator? Simply because he's the glue between the others--like some sort of slightly more tidy six-degrees-of-separation experiment? At times, I wanted to fast-forward (hooray CD!) the parts about Zuckerman changing his saturated briefs and learn more about the tumor-stricken Amy Bellette or the paranoid Jamie Logan.

2) In a society where Perez Hilton seems to have as much clout as the actors he maligns, I'm curious about the division between how a writer (or actor or other celebrity-type) behaves in his/her "real" life, and how that influences the merit of his/her art. Zuckerman makes this point over and again in Exit Ghost as he attempts to forestall the biography-in-progress of the late E.I. Lonoff. In short, the biographer, a young bullhead named Kleinman, is convinced that Lonoff lived an isolationist existence to prevent the discovery of his incestuous relationship. Kleinman wants to confirm his hypothesis so he can publish a tell-all. Zuckerman, meanwhile, a former friend and disciple of of the late Lonoff, is convinced that such a book would do the writer the ultimate disservice: reduce his reputation to that one irreversible taboo.

How important is the biographical context? And do scandalous tidbits prevent us from appreciating and considering work at face value? How badly do we need to know the details of a writer's life and how they inform his/her stories? (Does the answer lie in how many more nonfiction books sell vs. works of fiction?)


The English language recently added its millionth word to the lexcion. And the lucky winner is ...Web 2.0. 

Web 2.0? That's the millionth word??