by William Maxwell
When I interviewed David Wroblewski (author, of course, of the best–selling The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) for a program at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, he said that one of his favorite books — a book that had influenced him and his own writing — was William Maxwell’s novella So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vintage, 1996). Maxwell was for many decades a fiction editor of The New Yorker and had, in that capacity, a great influence on the course of American writing in the mid–twentieth century. I recalled reading this novella when it was first published in 1980; but of course now that I knew that Wroblewski was one of its fans, I was eager to reread it and try to understand why he liked it so much. I discovered, upon this second reading, that it was even better than I remembered.
It’s a masterful exploration of how the past weighs on and shapes the present, and how there are some things we do, or that happen to us, that can never be forgotten or forgiven, of one’s self or others. The unnamed narrator — writing from the perspective of an adult looking back some 50 years or so — reconstructs the events surrounding a tragic murder/suicide that took place in 1921 in his central Illinois hometown, when he was 12 years old. The murderer is the father of his friend, Cletus. And a year and a half after the murder, the narrator behaves — in his own eyes — shamefully toward his friend. In trying to understand what led up to the deaths, the narrator is also trying to understand and forgive his own conduct, which was at least partially motivated by the the death of the narrator’s mother three years before and his father’s subsequent remarriage. All of this is presented in prose so lean and precise that it evokes much more than it ever literally says. Like poetry, every word chosen by Maxwell is necessary; it would be impossible to edit down this brilliant novella. A great choice for a book group, especially if you’ve already done The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. You can start off by asking why Wroblewski likes this novella so much — that’s a question that will take the group in many different directions.
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by Elaine Showalter
It’s perhaps hard to imagine that a survey of American literature could be described as “fascinating reading.” Yet I am convinced that this is true of Elaine Showalter’s remarkable “A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx” (Knopf, 2009). Not only does Showalter write in a sprightly, witty, and inviting style; but also her insights into the works of women’s literature and their authors have the potential to make us all better readers. On nearly every page of this intelligent and opinionated book, she offers us something of interest. In her instructive introduction, Showalter writes about the movement of women’s writing going through three phases: “feminine,” “feminist,” and “female,” before culminating, thus far, in “free”; that is, writing that is not hobbled by form or subject. Her example of a woman writer whose work exemplifies that fourth phase is Annie Proulx.
Reading Showalter’s book will introduce you to many women whose writings have for the most part disappeared from the public consciousness, like Mary Rowlandson (c.1635–1678), who wrote about her captivity by Native Americans or the Pulitzer Prize–winning dramatist Susan Glaspell, whose plays were once considered on a par with Eugene O’Neill but are no longer produced, Pulitzer or no. Showalter provides mini–biographies of lesser–known writers like the political radical Meridel Le Sueur or the feminist intellectual Tess Slessinger, as well as those who are better known, like Katherine Anne Porter and Mary McCarthy, whose lives were richly complicated. She offers her insights into the lives and poetry of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich, as well as ranking their places in the pantheon of 20th century poetry. Obviously, one of the subversive pleasures for readers of a book like this is to disagree with not only the evaluation of different writers, but also with whom Showalter chose to include and whom she’s omitted, especially when it comes to those late 20th and early 21st century writers. But that’s a fun bone to pick, and Showalter obviously intends her book as something for both scholars and ordinary readers to react to. If you’re looking for some suggestions for books to read, you could do far far worse than open Showalter’s book to a random page and go check out the book she’s discussing.
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by Antonya Nelson
Antonya Nelson’s splendid short story collection, Nothing Right (Bloomsbury, 2009), gives you a complete picture of her particular writerly talents: a sense of the absurd, a deep respect for her characters, and the skill to bring those characters to vivid life. Two of Nelson’s great strengths are her astonishing insights into human behavior and her remarkable talent for giving us three–dimensional characters in just a sentence or two. Both are on full display in every story in this collection. I think we know nearly everything there is to know about Sadie, the main character in the story “DWI,” from this: “As was the case with most new experiences, therapy ended up resembling school: vocabulary, irksome effort, anxiety, tests, and failure. Would anything ever not seem like some new set of lessons Sadie would neglect to learn?” In “Or Else,” she describes Telluride, Colorado this way: “At night, the stars devastated the clear, clear sky.” I was simply stunned by how perfect the verb in that sentence is. Everyone will have a particular story, or two, or three that most appeals — but I would definitely recommend the title story about a teenage father and his divorced mother, as well as “Kansas,” and “Falsetto.” Fans of Lorrie Moore’s short stories will not want to miss getting acquainted with Nelson’s fiction, both short and long. And don’t miss Nelson’s older but still wonderful Living to Tell, one of my favorite character–driven novels.
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by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter (Harcourt, 2008) is a “ripped from the headlines” re–imagining of an actual 1864 lawsuit. While her novel illuminates the place of women, the state of marriage, and the hypocrisies of Victorian England; at its heart, it’s about the painful and sometimes staggering costs of remaining true to your beliefs. The two main characters are unlikely friends: staunch feminist and spinster Emily “Fido” Faithfull (readers will discover that her name is quite apt), who is known in London circles as the publisher of such pro–women periodicals of the period as English Woman’s Journal and Victoria Magazine; and the beautiful Helen, unhappily married to Vice–Admiral Henry Codrington. Indulging in a series of love affairs with her husband’s junior officers during the family’s seven-year posting in Malta, Helen continues to flaunt convention even after the Codringtons move back to England. When the two old friends meet by chance (or is it chance?) on a London street, Helen begs Fido to help her secretly spend time with the young army officer with whom she’s currently infatuated. Fido is torn between her love for Helen and her knowledge that what her friend is asking of her is wrong. When Codrington finally reaches the end of his patience with his wife’s behavior and sues for divorce, there ensues a courtroom drama that rivals television’s “Divorce Court” for its display of all aspects of human behavior — from the most noble to the rankest, from a semen–stained dress to a betrayal of friendship to doing the right thing at whatever cost.
What Donoghue excels at is a richly descriptive writing style. Here is Fido, thinking about the city she loves: “The fact is that for all its infinite varieties of filth, London is the thumping heart of everything that interests her, the only place she can imagine living.” Donoghue also opens up the past to us — she has the ability to make a contemporary reader understand the behaviors and beliefs of an age supposedly quite different from our own. Ah, you will ask yourself when you finish this intriguing historical novel, but has human nature changed over the intervening years?
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