First book of the new year! This year my goal is 60 books. I think it’ll be doable; my final count for 2012 was 61.


After I finished Life After Death, I read a few reviews. The ones in which people didn’t like the book, I have a few bones to pick…

In order to enjoy Life After Death, you need to buy into Echols’ personality, and yes, it is a little different. He was different before he was accused and convicted of murder, before he spent almost twenty years on death row, and he’s especially different now.

He was a devout Catholic for years, became Buddhist in prison, was married in a Buddhist ceremony, believes in “magick”, and practices meditation and a number of other esoteric practices. But I would argue that this diverse spirituality is probably all that saved him from insanity. I think it’s a credit to his spirit that he found constructive outlets in order to get through his ordeal.

You also have to accept that this book is not about the West Memphis 3, or the boys murdered on Robin Hood Hill. By his own admission, Echols wasn’t very involved in the crusade for his release; it was too frustrating, and took much more effort from those on the outside. He also didn’t know much about the murders; after all, he didn’t commit them. He heard about the murders from the tv, like everyone else in West Memphis. He wasn’t aware of his charges when he was first arrested and arraigned, and by the time he was aware of what really happened, he was so disgusted and frustrated at being ridiculously accused of a crime he so obviously didn’t commit. So if you are expecting an outline of the trial, an overview of the murders, watch the documentaries. They are very interesting, very well done. Read this book if you care about Echols and his experience.

And what a horrible, tragic experience. There’s something about it, about all those chapters before he ever gets arrested, that I think are relatable and really bring you in to his story. Poverty, sadly, is familiar. Many of us have known poverty, personally or through working at soup kitchens or homeless shelters, even just from walking down a city street. And there is something so heartbreaking in getting to know the poverty of a child, in really understanding what life was like for Echols for 18 years. There are so many other relatable moments, too: his first job, his first love, his experiences at school, his love for music. I think in bringing us into his life, we are that much more shocked when it changes, that much more bereft when what we know will happen actually happens. And it is the antithesis of familiar. We might think we know from movies or tv, but we know nothing; Echols makes that perfectly clear.

I also think that Echols does a great service for the justice system. He airs the dirty laundry, and someone has to. From the mistreatment of prisoners to the execution of mentally ill and handicapped, he gives us a real picture, if not of America’s prison system as a whole, then definitely of the Arkansas system. As Echols says, he doesn’t know what the answer is, but it has to be better than this. Beating prisoners for giving interviews, medicating the mentally ill until they are lucid enough to understand their impending executions, throwing people in the hole for sharing food with poorer prisoners. Not to mention the creepy zealotry with which Damien was pursued, first by the juvenile detention officer, and then by the investigators and officers around the Robin Hood Hill murders.

I think that Echols’ story is so important because, let’s face it, he is not the only one wrongfully accused. He is not the only one with inept attorneys, vindictive prosecutors, sentenced to death for a crime he had nothing to do with. Echols is just one story that we know. He says he personally knew three people on death row with him that were innocent. Three out of the possible hundreds, that might not seem like a lot. But I would argue that it is; it is too many for a justice system that prides itself on equality, fairness, thoroughness. There was nothing equal or fair or thorough about Echols’ situation, and there certainly wouldn’t have been anything equal or fair or thorough if he’d been executed. He wasn’t, but others were, in Arkansas, and probably around the country.

It was clear to me by the end of the book that something drastic needs to change, from the beginning of an investigation all the way through to sentencing. A task force that was being investigated for money laundering probably shouldn’t have been in charge of investigating high-profile (or any) murders. Investigators, and officers not even assigned to the Robin Hood Hill murders, should not have been able to harass Damien, interrogate him endlessly, and hold him without charging him. He should have been read his rights, and he should have been informed of the charges being brought against them. That judge should have read Misskelley’s “confession” when Damien was charged…

Honestly, it goes on. It’s hard for me to recount it all, to think about it all, because it’s just so disturbing. I think there are so many social issues that need to be dealt with in America – education, poverty, prisons, mental health – and I just pray that it happens before there are more like Damien Echols, before we kill one of them.

I think another thing that I was impressed with was Echols’ candor. He talks a lot about people invading his privacy: tour groups staring at him in his cell, even while he showers; people writing letters, asking him specific questions about his life and incarceration. You’d think that someone concerned with privacy, the last thing they would want to do is write a book. He says that writing is cathartic, it helps him heal, and I don’t think that’s an unusual form of therapy for people who have gone through traumatic experiences. But I also think that a great deal of good can come from him publishing his story. I really hope that he continues to write, personally or from a social/public policy point of view. I think he has an easy, articulate way with words that not many have, and he could really do a lot of good.

Final verdict: 5 Stars


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The Truth about Voice

While I’ve clearly been slacking in the writing of blog posts category, I’ve been actively thinking a lot about the last few books I’ve read. I gobbled up two Alice Hoffman books, The Story Sisters and The Red Garden, within a few days of each other, and followed it up with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. I read This is How You Lose Her, also by Díaz, about a month ago.

I love everything I’ve ever read by Hoffman. For me, she has this comfortable quality: I both know and don’t know what I’m going to get with her. I know there will be a little magic, a little something other-wordly, and probably some difficult circumstances, but apart from that I’m always in for a surprise just how well she executes the structure and characterization in all her books. They are so very her without feeling like something she’s done before. In an interview at the back of The Red Garden, Hoffman discusses her mentor, Albert Guerard, and his opinion of voice: “Every writer’s voice was unique and original, much like a fingerprint, and if one could tap into one’s true voice every story would ring true.” This is exactly what I think of when I think of her, and this is why I love her so much. I know when I crack open the book, no matter what it is about, it will be in her voice. And I’m so excited by that.

Junot Díaz, on the other hand. I found myself slogging through The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I kept looking at the back – how many pages until I’m done? I always take that as a bad sign. And it’s not that it was poorly written – definitely not – or boring in terms of plot or tension – no again. I just kept thinking, I’ve read this before… And I realized that Oscar Wao is This is How You Lose Her, at least in terms of voice (or vice versa – probably depends on which you read first, though I think I would prefer This is How You Lose Her anyway).

And I kept wondering – do I just not like Díaz’s voice? It would be hard to argue that he hasn’t found his fingerprint; he’s unlike anyone I’ve ever read, and I do appreciate him. So what was it?

I think it was the narration. And there is a fine line here, I know, between voice and narration. I’ve experienced it as a writer, especially when you write in the first person. Where do you draw the line between the voice of the author and the voice of the narrator? It’s difficult. I think to some degree Hoffman has an edge, because aside from a few sections in The Red Garden, the two novels I just read are third person close-in. This gives the writer the ability to see into the characters’ minds, but also to use her own voice so much more. In first person, an author can “blame” a lot of the voice on the narrator, which can help and hurt. I think with Díaz it might hurt.

When I read This is How You Lose Her, first of all, the entire book is about Yunior, so the first person narration and the voice comingling made a little more sense. In Oscar Wao, Yunior is telling the story of his sometime-girlfriend’s brother, so the story is not really his. And imposing his voice, so unique, onto another story just left me with a funny taste in my mouth. Is this all Díaz can do? This self-aware but still flawed Dominican?

I know, I know. Díaz won the Pulitzer for Oscar Wao. And reading it against other books or for other reasons, maybe I would feel differently. But when it comes to voice, I feel like Alice Hoffman has found her fingerprint, and is able to work with it in every piece without it seeming redundant. Díaz might have found his fingerprint, but I would like to see it put to wider use. Oscar Wao felt stale to me because I’d already read Yunior’s voice in This is How You Lose Her. I would really like to see what else Díaz can do, if he can use this snappy, snarky, honest, smooth voice in a different narrative altogether.

Final Verdict: Read all four of these. Let me know what you think.

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One of the best things about my 52-book goal this year was what a huge variety of stuff I read, novellas to epics, young adult to classic, short story collections to novels. Reading everything in such close succession really opened my eyes to how much is out there.

I don’t remember where I first heard of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. A few people on my Goodreads list have rated it, and since Junot Diaz writes so favorably of Laila Lalami, I could have heard of her in relation to him.

This book has a few things in common with some of the books I’ve read recently. Like This is How You Lose Her and The Dew Breaker,* this book is about a culture – Muslims– I know nothing about. And like In the Shadow of the Banyan and NW,** it’s set in a foreign place – Morocco – I know nothing about. I’m a little ashamed to say that anything I’ve read touching on Muslims or Islam has either been about extremism or foreign policy, and almost all of it about the Middle East, not North Africa. So I felt a little uneasy stepping into this book, though excited.

I thought the writing and characters overall were well done, especially for a first book. Though the characters all had a similar struggle – emigrating from Morocco – it manifested differently in their lives, led them down different paths to different experiences. I liked the spiderweb effect that had, where it feels like everyone is connected in a basic way.

My favorite part of the book, though, was the structure. It is so unique that I can’t think of another piece of fiction that does quite the same thing. The book begins with the most important event: the characters riding in a Zodiac boat across the 14-mile Strait of Gibraltar, from Tangier, Morocco, to Tarifa, Spain. Murad, the narrator of this story, is captured and deported at the end of the chapter, as are several others, and the rest of the book is split into two sections: Before and After. What happened to each of the main characters – Murad, Faten, Halima, and Aziz – before and after that journey. Two, Faten and Aziz, finally get to Spain, with varying degrees of success, while Murad and Halima stay in Morocco.

I thought this was a really creative way to tell the story. Instead of seeing it chronologically – what caused them to want to leave, the journey, and the aftermath – we see the journey first, we see what each character goes through in a one-hour time span, and we imagine why they might have taken such a risk. And we get to go back and actually see why they did it. And I thought it was really interesting that the characters who left, they are arguably worse off than they would have been in Morocco. Faten, a strict Muslim and part of the Islamic Student Organization in college, becomes a prostitute to support herself. Aziz, who leaves his wife behind to find work in Spain, comes back to Morocco, but doesn’t connect with the place or the people anymore, and he leaves his wife again, maybe for good.

I thought this structure brought out a lot of tension that we might not otherwise feel in a traditional chronological story; it’s like seeing the tidal wave or the tornado or the battle, and then going back to see where it all began. It seems imbued, somehow, with more history and meaning this way. There is more at stake. Right away we are attached to these people who have done this harrowing thing, and not succeeded, and we want to know how and why and if they’ll do it again.

I think this particular type of story, this emigrant/immigrant story, is relevant now in regards to the Mexican immigration to the United States. In the same way the Moroccans want to leave Morocco for Spain, for a better life, Mexicans want to come to America. There’s a lot of policy and politics surrounding illegal immigration here, and I thought this book brought a human face to it. So often citizens think of illegal immigration in terms of taxes, jobs, and other services, but we don’t always think of why someone would want to risk his or her life crossing a border to an uncertain future. While that might not ultimately change what we believe politically, I think it is an important realization, to be aware of humanity in all its experiences. That’s why I like being a writer, and a reader; I don’t do either for political benefit, but to better understand people. I think the structure of this book really invests us in the characters and makes this understanding possible.

*This is How You Lose Her features a Dominican-American narrator and a lot about Dominican culture. The Dew Breaker is about Haitians and Haitan-Americans.
**In the Shadow of the Banyan is set in Cambodia. NW is set in northwest London.

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MADE IT TO 52… 53…

This weekend I officially hit my 2012 reading goal of 52 books, after I finished A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition. I surpassed my goal on Sunday when I read, in basically one sitting, This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz.

I am very impressed with the job that Sean Hemingway is doing with the new editions of Hemingway’s works. I read two this year: A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition, which included Hemingway’s alternate endings and a list of possible titles for the novel, and A Moveable Feast. This new edition of A Moveable Feast restores some of the original text as Hemingway saw it before he died, erasing some of the changes the editors made on his behalf. I think both of these books in their own rights give readers and writers alike an amazing insight into Hemingway, but these updated editions are especially good for writers. Hemingway’s approach to writing, his thoughts on structure and titling, are all present in these works, and I’m thankful for these new editions.

Final verdict: 5 Stars

I’ve never read Junot Díaz. In my attempt to read more of what 2012 has offered, I decided to start with This is How You Lose Her. I have to say I was immediately impressed by the voice, and impressed that, although the character grows and matures throughout the book, the voice stays true to its deepest nature.

At first I thought I would be put off by the amount of Spanish in the book, but I found that it was interesting. I started picking up words from one story to another, understanding their meanings. I think there was enough contextualization that even if you don’t speak Spanish, and I don’t, you could figure out what was being said and, more important, the tone.

I really enjoyed the linked nature of the stories, not just of Yunior himself, but of the relationship theme as well. We got so much richness from his romantic relationships, relationships with his parents and his brother, the relationship of Dominicans in the United States versus in the Dominican Republic. I read a book earlier this year, Among Schoolchildren, that dealt a lot with Puerto Rican immigrants to the United States, and this had a bit of that flavor in it, which I really liked.

I loved the different structures and points of view Díaz used throughout the book, even though most of the stories are from/about Yunior. I especially thought the structures of the last two stories were great, and I loved his use of the second person. I don’t often see a need for using second person, but I thought it really worked in this story.

I found only a few small bones to pick with this book. First, I was a little put off by “Otravida, Otravez” because it was the only story that didn’t involve Yunior in some way. That’s a slippery slope in a story collection, I think. Either all the stories have the connecting character, or a few of them don’t. It seems a little oddball, to me, to have one story that’s different. I did, however, appreciate the story in and of itself, as well as the different view it game of the immigrant experience, from a woman’s point of view.

I also had a hard time connecting with “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” I loved the structure of the story, the plot, and content were all there for me, but I just didn’t connect deeply with Yunior in that story. Perhaps it’s because he’s older, you hope he would’ve learned by now, and it’s the last story, it ends on a down note and you never know if he really will learn. You feel like maybe through Elvis he did learn, but maybe it’s too late. So perhaps it’s the placement of the story within the collection rather than the story itself, I’m not sure.

But overall, I would absolutely recommend the book, and I plan on reading more Junot Díaz, maybe even before the year is out!

Final verdict: 4 Stars

After finishing these two books, it seemed like a great time to look back at what I’ve read this year. Each book – A Moveable Feast and This Is How You Lose Her – represent a strand of the types of books I’ve read this year: classic literature and contemporary literary fiction. I revisited some of my favorite classics this year, like A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby. I also discovered a few new favorites, like Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Stories by Katherine Mansfield, and The Destructors by Graham Greene. I also tackled Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; I’m not sure it’ll ever be on my favorites list, but it was an important book to read for many reasons and I’m so glad I got through it. I also discovered some fabulous contemporary writers: Aleksandar Hemon, Louise Erdrich, and Herta Müller.

There were books I loved and will probably read again, and books I wasn’t fond of but which still managed to teach me something about writing, from characterization to structure to voice to sentence structure and word choice. It’s always important for me, no matter my final verdict, to gain something for myself as a writer. Reading is by far the best way to learn.

I’m not done yet, though! It’s still November, and while I won’t be setting a goal for the rest of the year, I will be compiling a reading list for my week off in December.

I MADE IT TO 52… 53…
1. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
2. A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition by Ernest Hemingway
3. In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
4. NW by Zadie Smith
5. The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat,
6. The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
7. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
8. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
9. Stories by Katherine Mansfield
10. The Destructors by Graham Greene
11. Rain and Other South Sea Stories by W. Somerset Maugham
12. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
13. Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories by Anton Chekhov
14. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
15. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
16. The Question of Bruno: Stories by Aleksandar Hemon
17. Blueprints for Building Better Girls: Fiction by Elissa Schappell
18. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolff
19. The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist
20. A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition by Ernest Hemingway
21. On the Natural History of Destruction by W.G. Sebald
22. John Dollar by Marianne Wiggins
23. Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder
24. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
25. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
26. The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
27. The Meadow by James Galvin
28. Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones
29. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
30. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
31. Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon
32. The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
33. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
34. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
35. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
36. Miami by Joan Didion
37. The Selected Poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke
38. The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster
39. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
40. Cathedral by Raymond Carver
41. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
42. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
43. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
44. My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd
45. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
46. Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation by Laura Silber
47. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
48. Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr
49. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
50. The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
51. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
52. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
53. The Appointment by Herta Müller

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The Truth about Plot

There’s been a lot of discussion about genre versus literary fiction lately. Maybe not just lately, maybe always, but I’ve noticed it especially lately.

Full disclosure: I write literary fiction. I tend to read and prefer literary fiction to genre fiction. My favorite writers include Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Julie Orringer, Nicole Krauss, all more literary than genre. But I’ve also read some of J.R. Ward’s vampire romances, and I loved Stephen King’s last story collection, Full Dark, No Stars. And when I think about why I liked these so-called genre books, I go back to character – Ward’s vampires are skillfully developed as is their world, and King’s characters are so fully fleshed I felt as though I could turn and talk to them.

Most often genre fiction is defined as that which is plot driven, and literary fiction is that which is character driven. Generally, I agree with this, although my previous examples show that “genre” fiction can have some really great characters too.

So what about literary fiction and plot? While plot might not be the most important aspect of literary fiction – I think the way in which Jay Gatsby reacts to Daisy is much more interesting than the plot line of the book – it is definitely necessary. (If we had no idea what happened to Gatsby at the end, I don’t think it would be such a classic.)

I was especially challenged with this question in two books I read recently: The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat and NW by Zadie Smith. Though these books are not linked by their content, I found myself thinking the same thing when I closed each book at the end: what happened?

Individually, each of the stories in The Dew Breaker is phenomenal. They all have a rich sense of place, from New York to Florida to Haiti, and they all explore deep relationships, from a daughter and her parents, to the émigré and his homeland. There are questions of morality, righteousness, ethnicity, nationality… It’s really quite breathtaking, and I think a novel in stories was a great way to approach all of these big ideas.

The problem I had was with the title, and the relationship of the title to the book as a whole. The dew breaker appears directly in the first story and then not again until the last story. The stories between are only tangentially related to the dew breaker, and most of them are not explicitly (some not even implicitly) about his actions in Haiti, which the title implies is the central tension of the book. Beatrice, the dress maker – did she live across the street from the dew breaker or not? Had she really known him in Haiti? Dany, who returned to Aunt Estina. Did the dew breaker really murder his parents? Did he really figure that out? And Anne, what’s to be made of her marrying the man who killed her half brother?

Of course, maybe it doesn’t matter if Beatrice really lived across from the dew breaker; maybe it only matters that she thinks she did. The same with Dany. But I think there is a danger in being too implicit about plot, especially when it relates to the central theme.

I understand not spoon-feeding your readers. I hate having everything spelled out to me in fifteen different ways, but I detest vagueness to the same degree. Some doubt to Beatrice’s neighbor would have been fine for me, maybe even permanent vagueness on behalf of the character herself, but I think Aline provided a great opportunity to expand the perspective because the question really matters to the character of the dew breaker – and thus to the book overall. The same with Dany. The dew breaker’s main crime all along seems to be that he killed Anne’s half brother and then married her, and never told her about the incident until after they had their daughter. But if the dew breaker really killed Dany’s parents, that might bring to light a worse crime. And does Anne know about that? Does Ka? I keep replaying the question Ka had in the first story: there’s more? And I think it matters if there is, I think it matters to Ka and to Anne and to the character of the dew breaker and to the readers.

I also think plot is important to this novel because the end result of these complicated, unanswered questions is that I don’t understand much about Haiti. Sometimes one book of fiction is as close as I am every going to get to a place, and I want some solid sense of it, even if it’s only one solid sense, even if it’s an unhappy or even horrible sense. I think a clearer plot, a clearer sense of events, would have really helped.

I’ve heard a lot about Zadie Smith, especially in the last year, one of those prodigy writers, clicking out four highly regarded books before forty. We should all be so lucky, eh? I’ve been neglectful of all the fabulous literature produced in 2012, so I decided to pick up NW and see what all the fuss is about. And I get it, I really do. She does some great things with character, perspective, style, structure, dialogue, and dialect. But I finished the last page, which clocked in at 401, and I thought, what just happened? I might have said it out loud even.

The plot connections of Leah and Natalie to Felix were weak and overly coincidental to a deity-intervening degree. The Felix digression was interesting, I thought he was a well-sketched character, but his was an entirely separate book. One might even be able to argue that, though they were much more related, the Leah and Natalie sections could have been there own novels.

Some big things happen in the Leah and Natalie sections. Leah has multiple abortions and continues taking birth control though her husband wants a child. Natalie seems to “make it” out of her poor neighborhood – fabulous job, hot husband, two kids – but she’s on hook-up websites setting up sex meetings with strangers.

We learn all of this in 109 and 201 pages respectively. But there is never a confrontation between Leah and Michel about the abortions or the pills; quite the opposite. At the end, rather than talking about the elephant in the room, they are distracted by Natalie’s story about a murder. We know Natalie and Frank do have an altercation over her escapades after he finds her secret email account, but we don’t know what was said, how or why she ended up coming home, and what Frank has decided to do.

Again, I’m sure both of these characters not saying things is important, and that’s fine. And it really was a treat to read some of the exquisite sentences and insightful metaphors of Smith. But, in the end, I want something to bite into in terms of plot. A beautiful sentence is a beautiful sentence, but a fabulous writer can lose even me after 401 pages of them; I want some meat on there too. I don’t need a final page with a bow on it , but I want to have some sense of what happened to the characters to which I’ve devoted so much time.

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List: 14 more

I have been reading like a madwoman lately; I just get in moods where if I am not reading 100 pages a day, I don’t feel fulfilled. I also think when I am writing more – as I am to get ready for workshop next semester! – I feel more of an urge to read and read widely. Studying the techniques of others helps me with my own writing so much, and you never know when you will need to read a certain writer, what they will have to say to you when you are struggling with your own piece.

In the last three weeks we’ve read more regional stories, from England to the American South to Ireland. I’ve discovered some fantastic new writers that I hadn’t read before and reread some I love. Many of these writers are not widely read (even for college lit majors), so I would encourage you to discover some under-the-radar writers.

English Writers

  1. “The Man Who Would Be King” by Rudyard Kipling
    This was an odd story, but I agree that if you are going to read any Kipling, it’s probably better to read an earlier piece, when he wasn’t quite so racistandimperialistic.
  2. “The Open Window” by H.H. Munro Saki
    This story is a hoot, but it also shows Saki’s skill. Sometimes funny stories are just that, but there’s so much subtlety here.
  3. “Rain” by W. Somerset Maugham
    I love this story, which is odd for me because it’s a longer one. However, I think to develop the characters and situation and tension as well as he does, Maugham needs all the pages. Complicated characters, juicy affairs, vivid exotic setting: this story has it all.
  4. “Blind Love” by V. S. Pritchett
    This story reminded me a lot of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” though this is the less Romantic, creepy version. It’s much more complicated and subtle, which I appreciated.
  5. “The Destructors” by Graham Greene
    I’ve wanted to read this story ever since I saw Donnie Darko, and I’m so glad I finally got to it. It’s so gleefully disturbing, so punk rockas one of my fellow students said, that you might almost feel bad loving it so much – almost.

Southern Writers

  1. “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner
    To be honest, I’ve never been a Faulkner fan. But  I would challenge anyone to not be engaged by the story. It has one of the greatest concepts, fabulous characters, and great tension. Maybe I found the way to become a Faulkner fan.
  2. “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter
    This is a beautifully disembodied story, very stream of consciousness, and it doesn’t hurt that it links up with an Emily Dickinson poem very nicely. I’ve never read Porter, but I will now.
  3. “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston
    I had a hard time with the dialect in this story, but apart from that I really enjoyed the setting and the characters, both of which we don’t see enough of in literature, given the writers and audience of this period.
  4. “No Place for You My Love” by Eudora Welty
    I had a hard time with this piece as well, because I couldn’t tell exactly where it was going. As it turns out, the actions are secondary, while what’s going on underneath – what’s unsaid, undone – is more important. The story is a little bit long, I think, to be entirely successful, but it is a great story to study for this particular technique.
  5. “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor
    I love Flannery, and this story is so rich with symbolism and meaning that it’s hard to say anything other than: just read it. And then read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” which is my favorite story of hers.

Irish Writers

  1. “Araby” by James Joyce
    It’s hard to imagine that anything could be on par with “The Dead,” and maybe this isn’t quite, but I love it more every time I read it, for its simplicity and vividness and perfectly rendered scene.
  2. “Mysterious Kôr” by Elizabeth Bowen
    I’d be hard-pressed to decide on a favorite for the night, but this is close. I love the complicated setting, I think, the most, which is probably appropriate given the title. The imagine setting, the greater setting of London during the Blitz, and the tiny setting of Callie and Pepita’s apartment… they’re all so vivid and important.
  3. “The News from Ireland” by William Trevor
    This was a tedious read for me, and one I still don’t understand fully. Trevor reminds me of a more verbose Chekhov – Irish, of course. He is able to take the raw events and render them so cleanly.
  4. “Sister Imelda” by Edna O’Brien
    I loved the tension that O’Brien builds in this story. It’s built up to a point and then recedes, built up and then smashes. She is so talented at building this tension, this taboo tension, that I can’t wait to read more of her work.

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Book review: THE FOREVER WAR by Dexter Filkins

I generally give more credence to book recommendations from people I actually know versus professional bloggers or reviewers, but, after reading a particularly convincing recommendation for this book, I decided to give it a go. After all, it’s easier for me to put down a nonfiction book if I don’t like it than fiction.

But as Miles says in his recommendation, “I dare you to read the seven-page prologue… and then put this book down.” You can’t do it, not if you have any interest in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq whatsoever.

Because Dexter Filkins is a writer, I expected a certain level of competency. Filkins actually accomplishes something more. As Miles says, the book turns out more primary source document than reportage. Filkins doesn’t include only what he witnesses, but also what he is involved in, from the soldier who died leading him and a photographer to a story to the Iraqis he hired to bring him stories when it was too difficult for him to leave the Times’ house. The book would be hollow without these sections, and I commend him for writing about experiences that must have been difficult.

I was happy to read a bit about how being in Iraq affected him. I loved his bits about running through Tigris River Park, in the months after it was rehabbed by the Americans, and after it fell into disrepair. In these moments he discusses the numbness he felt during the rest of his time in Baghdad, how he had originally felt that he would get injured, but after escaping death for seven years, he had gone numb, not thinking or even caring about his own well-being.

He also relates reading an email from a soldier’s mother who talked about her love for him, and how when the soldier read that email he had to keep himself from smiling, though his buddies ragged on him. And how, after her son returned home, another mother had to sleep in bed with her son to wake him from violent nightmares.

There are also so many harrowing bits. Filkins wasn’t just in Iraq, he was embedded, in the most literal sense. He lived outside the Green Zone in Baghdad, he traveled with marines when they took back Fallujah, and he flitted from Iraq to Iran with Chalabi. He met insurgent leaders and the head of CIA in Baghdad, parents who’d lost children and families run out of neighborhoods to Jordan or Syria or America.

All of these experiences would be moot without the writing, without the feeling. Filkins may have been numb while he lived in Baghdad, but it’s clear he was able to recover some humanity in writing the book.

One of my favorite sections is in chapter 2, a miniature essay called “Third World” about Filkins’s experience on September 11 at Ground Zero. It’s three and a half pages. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read about 9/11. He writes about seeing the empty beds in the temporary hospitals on Canal Street; he doesn’t have to say why they weren’t used. He talks about his walk to Ground Zero; he had to take a long way around because of all the police keeping people out, but as he approached the scene it was so quiet; “It was as if all the sound had been pulled into the hole in the ground a little farther up.” The first bit of debris he noticed was a “gray-green thing” – a bit of a person’s intestine – and he marvels about the human mind’s ability to pick out human flesh amidst so much waste.

And my favorite image in the entire book:

Above me stood one of the airplane landing struts, maybe thirty feet high, snapped off and lying at an angle in the street, looking like the collapsed wing of some enormous bird. The tire was still filled with air.

Those two sentences broke my heart. I experienced them in a different way than I think I’ve experienced anything 9/11-related in the last eleven years. Broadcasts and newspapers, they make me numb. I freeze at the image of the falling towers. But these sentences made me feel again.

In the third paragraph of the essay, he talks about how, looking toward lower Manhattan, he was “back in the Third World.”

My countrymen were going to think this was the worst thing that ever happened, the end of civilization. In the Third World, this sort of thing happened ever day.

I think that this new perspective, from someone who has seen disasters – natural and manmade – all over the world, is what really affected me about this essay. Filkins wasn’t just another American witness; his experiences widen the scope of human suffering, illuminate a world in which things like 9/11 happen all the time. And this lens widening, it doesn’t have to end with Filkins’s experience. What about Hurricane Katrina? The earthquake in Haiti? The tsunami in Indonesia? Or ethnic cleansing in Germany, the Balkans, Africa? This essay puts 9/11 in perspective, and while I think it’s important for Americans to remember it, I also think it’s important for us not to forget the rest of the world’s suffering.

I think the book as a whole approaches this idea as well. It forces readers to contend with Afghanistan before and after 9/11, and with Iraq during and after the 2003 invasion. It forces us to put all of these events on a plane of human suffering and to face the fact that, while we have suffered, we have caused others – the innocent and the guilty, the good and the evil, the domestic and the foreign – to suffer as well. And was it worth it? And should we consider that next time?

The only criticism I have is that some of the chapters blended together for me, in that I wasn’t sure when I was. Filkins was very good about describing where we were – Fallujah, Baghdad, Samarra – but I wasn’t sure that he presented everything chronologically. I think a lot of this came from the variation of turmoil throughout Iraq; each city, sometimes each neighborhood, went through different periods of calm versus war. Filkins traveled extensively and was clearly intimately acquainted with these places, and his deep knowledge might have muddied the timeline. I didn’t think, overall, that it took away from my reading experience.

Final verdict: 5 Stars

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