Fiction writers try to take universal experience and shape it into specific actions and feelings from authentic characters. In his latest novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, author Philip Cioffari accomplishes this task in spades.
the surface, If Anyone Asks is the
story of one night in the life of Joey “Hunt” Hunter. It’s a big night for
him—both his 18th birthday and prom night at his high school.
Self-conscious and unsure, he worries about impressing his prom date, the love
of his life, Debby Ann. What he doesn’t realize—or maybe he does—is that he
can’t impress her because her heart belongs to Sal, head of a local gang called
The other day a blizzard blasted my husband’s daily walk in the woods. “Why not swim laps with me?,” I asked. (I was heading to the indoor pool across the street). He looked at me like I was insane. Didn’t I know that he cannot exercise without “reading,” i.e., listening to a book? And didn’t I know how hard it was to follow narrative while swimming laps?
I didn’t, though he may be right. I do enjoy audio accompaniment to exercise, but I have never tried stroking through a story. As a devoted and daily swimmer, I listen instead to music on my beloved swiMP3 (when it chooses to work). Some people might be able to synchronize swimming with reading—I’m just not one of them.
This compelling memoir spans the author’s childhood and young adult years. Most of the story takes place in India and touches on the cut-throat competition among students to enter preferred schools that eventually lead to a university education. The author delves into the pressure that his parents exerted on him to get the grades as a child to enter into one of these schools.
In one Droplet, or chapter, Mr. Nair describes how his father wakes him up at 4:30 am every weekday when he is still in a non-preferred public school to study before getting ready for school. Unfortunately, the author isn’t as keen as his father about school and rebels against him in several instances.
While in his university, Mr.
I was fortunate to have piano lessons when I was a girl. In Canada, if students are learning classical music, teachers usually follow the Royal Conservatory of Music progression from grades one through ten and utilize the books for each level. These lessons include theory as well as musical scores for students to progress in.
Very early, I decided that classical was not my preference, and, after I’d completed four grades of the Royal Conservatory program, I convinced my mother to send me to a teacher who could help me learn pop tunes. That involved learning how to chord so when I used sheet music of popular songs, I only had to read the right-hand score, improvising with my left hand using chordal variations.
Last month I asked people to share their favorite headstrong women of literature. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of responses–though many responses were not exactly women, and, in at least one case, perhaps not even human.
Among the top answers were the kinds I was expecting. They included authors like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and Gertrude Stein who had written about strong, independent female characters and/or were notably strong and independent themselves. Some new names showed up on this list as well, including Jodi Picoult, Nora Ephron, Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, and even HIldegard of Bingen.
Other responses were female characters who clearly knew their own minds and felt empowered to live accordingly.
The Five Wishes of Mr. Murray McBride by Joe Siple is a heart-warming story about a former Chicago Cubs player, Murray McBride, a hundred-year-old man who has recently lost his wife. With few friends and only a grandson as family, the old timer has lost the will to live until he meets the fragile Jason Cashman, a ten-year-old struggling with a failing heart.
The presentation of Murray grabs the reader from the start. The lonely man visits his internist, who understands Murray’s predicament and suggests he visit the hospital to comfort a sick young boy. This boy turns out to be Jason. Murray has a medical condition, too. He must faithfully take his medicine to prevent fluid from entering his lungs and a certain death.
I suspect Tommy Orange fears he’s not being judged on the same scale as other authors. He’s like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. When Thomas got into Yale, people let it be known they thought he only got in because of affirmative action.
I suspect Orange fears he only got a book contract and won awards for his novel is because he’s Native American. I suspect he worries that he’s not being held to the same standard as other authors and having read the book I suspect he’s right.
There, There is an
award winner due to the content, not the writing or the structure of the novel.
His non-fiction Prologue, which cites ways in which Native Americans have been
victimized over the centuries, seems designed to pull at our heart strings
before he introduces the characters of his novel.
In the past week, one of my friends posted on Facebook that she had been recently rejected by The New Yorker. Cue for most of her friends to reassure her that eventually the magazine would take her work. Well-meaning, of course, but I noticed two subtexts in most of them: one, the majority, was that those idiot editors just didn’t recognise talent when they saw it, but surely would in the end (though what grounds they had for such optimism, I don’t know). The other one was that she just had to persist with her writing—in effect, that her writing wasn’t quite good enough yet, and all she had to do was be patient and perfect her craft.
It’s possible that either view is correct, or both.
When I read Eric D. Goodman’s novel Setting the Family Free, I was impressed with the themes that give the novel a memorable richness, so as I prepared to interview him, I put together questions about the ideas that resonated with me most. In his answers below, Eric expands some of my observations to include fresh themes that have even deeper meaning. Two of the most intriguing are that stories are different to almost everyone who knows them and individuals are unique to each of the people who know them. Read on to learn more about this thoughtful author and the perceptions that gave rise to Setting the Family Free.
Recently I got an ad from The New York Review of Books featuring “headstrong women” paraphernalia in their Readers Catalog (pillow covers, tea sets, necklaces, that kind of thing). They meant “headstrong women” of literature such as Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Gertrude Stein—women who took their lives into their own hands, I suppose.
Because I had just finished Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar, that email got me thinking about “headstrong” female protagonists. I can’t really say that Marjorie is headstrong. In the end she turns out to be quite conventional, at least externally, ultimately the poignant and ephemeral embodiment of a young man’s fantasy.
What on earth does headstrong mean anyway?
Still, Marjorie is in many ways a woman with a mind of her own, or at least a mind we got to see in depth in the novel.
I had the pleasure of reading MANAGED CARE, by fellow Black Rose Writing author Joe Barrett, and of interviewing him for this month’s post.
1. What kinds of novels do you read? Who are your favorite authors? Any nonfiction?
I enjoy dark, offbeat satires – especially ones that allow readers to really empathize with main characters that have a twisted perspective on the world – like Nabokov’s Lolita or Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. I also am a huge fan of dialog, I like getting to know characters by what they say and do, as opposed to reading literal descriptions. In addition to the above mentioned two, some of my favorites are Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Matthew Norman, and Ron Curry. And I wish Paul Neilan would write another book because I thought Apathy and Other Small Victories was hysterical.
Peter Handke was one of the two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and by now everyone knows, as the Swedish Academy did, that he supported Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader accused of genocide. My intention here is not to discuss whether Handke is a man who approves of genocide or not, but to question the basis on which literary prizes are awarded. Are they given for literary merit, or for the personal merit of the author? Or to put it another way: are prizes given for the value of the work of art, or for the character of the artist? This question is important not only for literature but more broadly for our entire civilisation.
My own political position should be irrelevant, but in case anyone doubts, let me begin by affirming that I condemn the genocide in Bosnia by the Bosnian Serbian forces, and have no sympathy whatever with Milosevic.
Laurel Leff, Buried by the Times (Cambridge, 2005)
One of the unfortunate casualties of the media’s war on Donald Trump and his ‘fake news’ response is a clear-eyed assessment of the extent to which outside factors influence what newspapers choose to print or not print. As a case in point, consider Laurel Leff’s thorough analysis of the New York Times coverage (or lack thereof) of the Nazi’s murderous campaign against the Jews of Europe. Leff exposes the Times’ intentional downplaying of what was happening out of a fear of being criticized for playing favorites due to the fact that the Times’ owner and publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was Jewish.
Sulzberger was a proponent of
the idea that Judaism was a religion and not the cornerstone of a people, a nation.
Think about it. When was the last time you read about a heroine who was not essentially modeled in the male heroic tradition? This tradition was consolidated by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle nearly 180 years ago. Find me a heroine who isn’t an individual acting essentially alone and against societal expectations; who isn’t defined by a journey of self-discovery culminating in an extraordinary individual act; who sacrifices self and many of those she loves—but not her individual integrity or self-reliance—to perform that act; who is ultimately, retrospectively, praised or memorialized for that individual performance. Find me a heroine that is not a clone of millions of male heroes who have come before her.
Nowadays people don’t generally think in terms of heroic tradition, and there’s a good reason.
Whenever I give a talk or reading, someone in the audience asks where my stories come from. I find the answer more complex that what it would appear to be on the surface. What are my narrative seeds? What starts me on these explorations of others’ lives?
One of my bios states “Lily sprouted on the Canadian prairies under cumulous clouds that bloomed in Alberta’s big sky. They were her first creative writing instructors, scudding across the heavenly blue, constantly changing shape: one minute an elephant, bruised and brooding. The next morphing into a rabbit or a castle. These billowing masses gave her a unique view of life on earth.”
I do credit those experiences I had as a child for my impulse to write, my desire to explore (and expand) my immediate surroundings, to move beyond them.
Lily Iona Mackenzie’s new novel Freefall: A Divine Comedy is a “coming-of-age” novel about four women turning sixty. As a woman of “a certain age,” this concept naturally caught my attention. The story of “wacky installation artist” Tillie Bloom and three friends from her teenage years follows the women’s lives over four decades in three countries, centered in the San Francisco Bay area, Whistler, BC, and Venice, Italy. The result is an imaginative, sometimes “hilarious,” romp with a touch of magical realism that also turns out to be a serious meditation on the relationship between art and mortality.
Besides Freefall, Mackenzie has published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 160 American and Canadian venues.
HAIL MARY, which will be published on May 7, 2020 by Black Rose Writing, is the sequel to EQUAL AND OPPOSITE REACTIONS by Patti Liszkay. This entertaining novel is a romantic comedy set in present-day Philadelphia.
The colorful characters are a bona fide mixture of what makes up the population in this city. Silvio, the blue-collar plumber from Northeast Philly, Darren, a white-collar real estate agent living in the fancy suburb of New Conshohocken, and Angelo, a questionable, foul-mouthed business owner, are a sample. Liszkay does her native city justice through these characters’ portrayal because they match the city’s grit, new money, bluntness, and corruption. They mirror the blue-collar grit and bluntness in the famous movie, Rocky, but also the new wave of professionals living in the city and its suburbs these days.
‘The most accomplished living novelist in the English language,’ John Irving said of Greene before the latter’s death in 1991—and yet how many Creative Writing students, especially in North America, have even heard of him these days, let alone read him? When I taught at a US graduate program, and recommended him, I generally found that my students did not know his work, even if they had heard of him. Of course, they had been stuffed full of novels by more ‘diverse’ writers.
So I shall stick my neck out and proclaim: You can save yourself thousands of dollars, writing students. Read half a dozen of Greene’s best novels carefully, as a writer does, and it will yield you more benefit than most MFA programs, especially those of the fashionable throw-the-western-canon-out-of-window variety.