Friday, November 14, 2014

On the Importance of Reading Modern Fiction

In my creative writing class, we've been workshopping everyone's final projects. One classmate's work in particular prompted me to write this post.

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He's a good poet. He's smart. He's my friend.

But his prose leaves much to be desired.

As a self-professed reader of only books from 100+ years ago, he writes in a stilted, overdone way. His sentences are long and cumbersome. He uses too many ... shall I say grandiose? ... words all together. It feels like he's trying so hard to sound like Dickens. Or Wilde. Or Proust. Or, god help us, Sir Walter Scott.

Basically, his writing is stunted.

As a writer, it's important to read everything. Classics. Contemporaries. Fiction. Nonfiction. You should read everything you can get your hands on. If you purposefully cut yourself off from a section of writings (especially one as large as the body of work produced in the last 100 years!) you are doing yourself a disservice. Your writing will suffer.

So I've decided to get him a few new(ish) books for his upcoming birthday. These are examples of fiction written within the last hundred years that I feel every writer (and reader) should experience.

1. Catch-22

"He was going to live forever or die in the attempt."

Catch-22, published in 1961, is a work of satirical genius by Joseph Heller. Taking place during WWII, Catch-22 captures the insanity, the desperation, the rage, the inevitability of war. Written in non-chronological 3rd person, it follows Air Force captain, Yossarian, who hates war. Yossarian's central conundrum is that if he is crazy, he'll be discharged. But he has to apply for said discharge and applying for said discharge demonstrates that he is not insane, thereby no longer qualifying for the discharge. For him, there is no way out of war. 

The narrative itself is circular and reflects the nature of the "Catch 22" conundrum. It's a great study in the devolution of a character into insanity. Heller's language is clear and powerful. His characters are unforgettable. It's hard to explain Catch-22 to someone who has not read it because it is so singular - so completely different from anything else that I've read.

2. Slaughterhouse-Five

"Nothing intelligent can be said about a massacre."

In keeping with my first suggestion, here is another experimental, WWII, and entirely singular book - Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, published 1969. I've reviewed this book before (you can read my review here). Like Catch-22, Slaugherhouse-Five is shockingly revolutionary and completely different from Heller's opus. Again, it's hard to explain Vonnegut's most famous work. Actually it's pretty hard to explain any of Vonnegut. He writes a little left of reality and Slaughterhouse-five is no different. Jumping between the fantastical and the devastating, Vonnegut captures the essence of surrealism without dissolving into the abstract or the detached. Billy Pilgrim is the quintessential unreliable narrator and the book forces the reader to question reality at every turn. What is real? What is delusion? Is there actually a difference? Vonnegut's writing is gorgeous - sometimes whimsical, sometimes bare and raw. Strange. Startling. Disturbing. This book is definitely worth the read. 

3. The Cider House Rules

"People only ask questions when they're ready to hear the answers."

John Irving is by far one of the most skilled writers working today. The Cider House Rules, published in 1985, is astounding. It follows Homer Wells, an orphan who never gets adopted. Instead he begins to learn the business of medicine as instructed by Dr. Wilbur Larch, head of the orphanage and the only doctor around who is willing to perform abortions. As my mother is fond of saying, all of Irving's books are about sex and perversion, and The Cider House Rules is no different. But instead of coming off as sensationalist or cheap, Irving writes about the difficulty of living. The difficulty of being human. It is the most honest look at one of the most controversial topics of our time. In the guise of empathetic characters and beautiful language, Irving forces you to examine your own beliefs - your own choices. An orphan or an abortion?

4. The Poisonwood Bible

"God doesn't need to punish us. He just grants us a long enough life to punish ourselves." 

The Poisonwood Bible is easily my favorite work of contemporary fiction (again, here's my full review). Published in 1998, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is the story of five women and the missionary husband/father/abuser they follow. Travelling half a world away, from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in the 1960s, the Price family women each get their own POV. All five parts are written in first person and all five are incredibly distinctive. There's never any confusion over who's who and the shear technical ability Kingsolver displays here is worth the read. The fact that Kingsolver's technical talent is alloyed with a spectacularly compelling story makes this a rare find and a necessary addition to any personal library. The Poisonwood Bible is an astounding work woven of technical ability, social consciousness, and the intimacy of a family struggling to survive the ravages of the Congo and of their father.

5. 1Q84

"But pure, unadulterated feelings are dangerous in their own way. It is no easy feat for a flesh-and-blood human being to go on living with such feelings."

Published as three separate novels in Japan over 2009 and 2010, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is an excellent example of where modern fiction can go. In a way, it follows in the surrealist footsteps of Vonnegut and presents a world that is just slightly left of reality. The book uses the term "1Q84" to show the slight difference of this new world the characters stumbled into from the one they left, back in the normal 1984. Again, even that is a nod to previous work - this time George Orwell's infamous dystopia. In my previous review, I introduced the book by calling it an asymmetrical fairy tale. Murakami successfully captures the juxtaposition of a pre-mobile phone world and post-modern philospophy in his unique poetic style. While the book is definitely complex (and crammed together into a gigantic volume when it was translated to English), it's definitely worth the read.

It's very very difficult to pick only five books from the last 100 years and there are so many more that are worth your time. 
The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker. The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949) by J.R.R. Tolkien. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee. The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. Ender's Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury. The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norman Juster.
And on and on an on and on, ad infinitum. As a writer, it's so important to read everything. Just read. Read every moment you can. 

Perhaps Stephen King said it best. If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time nor tools to write.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lost Girls: A Book Review

In the next iteration of my recent nonfiction reads, let me present Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker.

A tale of tragedy, vice, and murder, Lost Girls was both fascinating and frustrating. Even though the title directly tells you that the mystery is unsolved, there was a part of me that was confident that, given the evidence, I could figure out whodunit. But this is no clean Agatha Christie. It has no hero. No single villain. And no end.

Lost Girls is the story of the Long Island Serial Killer and five of his victims. Well, four depending on what you believe. Each of the girls is a sex worker who advertised through Craigslist, but while other authors might be tempted to emphasize the danger and seediness of these girl's worlds, Kolker does an excellent job of humanizing the girls. He starts out with a vision of their childhood and home life, the factors that lead to their career decisions. Their likes, their dislikes. Their dreams and ambitions and disappointments.

Kolker starts the book with an eerie prologue that sets the mood. A young woman, Shannan Gilbert, shows up at a gated community on Long Island. She runs from door to door, screaming that someone is trying to kill her. No one helps. The police take over forty-five minutes to show up. She disappears.

Alternating between factual evidence and anecdotal stories from family and friends, Kolker paints a broad picture. The tapestry is woven from the threads of these girls lives. From the reticence of the police and the community to care about "escorts." From the conflicting emotions of those left behind. This (sometimes) controlled chaos definitely makes for an interesting narrative.

Lost Girls does on occasion become confusing in its detail. With the vast cast of characters, the five main girls, and their alternative work names, keeping track of who's who can be a bit daunting. That's the difficulty of translating real life to a story. It's not always pretty.

Even with the inevitable disappoint, Lost Girls is a riveting story about the humanity behind the victims. It doesn't glorify the villain. It doesn't dismiss the victims. It strikes that precarious balance between voyeurism and information. Inextricably drawn into the mystery, the reader is forced to confront the fact that not all people are just good or just evil. That fate is never something one deserves. And most importantly, that not all stories have an ending.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Stolen Innocence: A Review

I've been on a bit of a nonfiction kick lately and it all started with one memoir. Stolen Innocence is the story of a young girl who grew up in the Fundamentalist Later Days Saints' community. Basically, when the mainstream Mormon church banned polygamy in an effort to get Utah accepted into the United States (you can read more about the history behind that here), there was a small group that broke off and continued the practice. Polygamy is one of those things that seems to go along with oppression of women and child abuse and I distinctly remember this particular group. The author is the main defendant in the 2007 case against the "prophet" Warren Jeffs. I was a senior in high school when this happened and I remember hearing about the case and, a year later, the police raid on an FLDS compound in Texas. That said, I really wasn't familiar with the details. I didn't know any names except Jeffs and I certainly had no concept about what the daily life of his followers was  like. 

The full title is Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs by Elissa Wall. That pretty much sums it up. The book starts out with the Wall's childhood - what it was like to grow up in the FLDS. I think the author does a great job of not vilifying the people who are caught up in this lifestyle. The majority of them were born into it and were never exposed to the outside world. Coming from a radically different background (on all levels), it was fascinating to me how "normal" aspects of daily life for them can be. They have hopes and games and family drama (though considerably more with multiple wives/mothers). Ultimately they are a family like any other. They want to raise their kids to live as good a life as they can imagine. They want a comfortable home and to feel secure with their place in the world. These memories of Wall's are painted with a warm glow and are pretty much presented the same way anyone's childhood memories would be. Even so, from the beginning there is an uneasy tension running through all the pleasant memories.

Wall's childhood, while idyllic at times, was also fraught with conflict. Conflict between the wives. Conflict between the children and the other mothers. Conflict between the sons and the father. Conflict between the family and the church. All of these stress pulled at Wall's family and eventually fractured it. When her father wasn't able to keep his children under control (several of the sons leaving the church permanently), her family was split up.

In the FLDS church, one of the core beliefs is that a man has to have three wives in order to reach the highest level of heaven. Wall's mother was the second wife and there was a lot of trouble between the two women. The first wife, having not been raised in the FLDS church, was not terribly comfortable with the arrangement and didn't know how to interact with a second wife, often choosing to be domineering and authoritarian (keep in mind this story is being told from the point of view of one of the second wife's children, so grain of salt...). After the head of the church - at the time it was Rulon Jeffs, heavily assisted by his son Warren - found out about the family's struggles, Wall's father was assigned a third wife. It was thought that the new addition may have a calming effect on the household, but no. The family's troubles continued. Eventually Wall's father had his second and third wife taken away from him. The trauma of having your family destroyed on the whim of some old man is devastating. Wall does a magnificent job of showing us the effect it had on her and her siblings. 

Matters only got worse with Rulon Jeffs' death. His son, Warren Jeffs, takes over and imposes new restrictions on the community. He marries many of his father's wives. He forces all the followers to take their children out of school. He shuts down community gatherings, even church. Basically the entire community gets more and more isolated, everyone terrified that they will be the next to be banished, the next to have their family taken away.

Warren Jeffs (at the back) with some of his wives.

Elissa Wall eventually became the lead defendant in the first case against Warren Jeffs. When she refused to conform to the expectations of the church, he forced her into an abusive marriage at the age of fourteen (obviously illegal). He was tried and found guilty in a civil suit, then with the raid of the Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldoardo, Texas, he was eventually found criminally guilty and sentenced to prison where he is still serving out his sentence.
I can't imagine the level of fear that these people lived with on a daily basis. I can't imagine the isolation and helplessness of those who were brave enough to leave, but who often had no where to go. No resources. No family. Often they didn't even have some sort of ID because their births were not officially recorded. This whole reality is so far removed from my realm of experience that it's difficult for me to remember that Stolen Innocence is nonfiction. But it is. As much as memories can be. 

There are flaws with the book. Wall is very obviously not a writer. She was assisted in writing this book by Lisa Pulitzer, but even so, the language is often awkward and inelegant. On that same note, the pacing is iffy in places, occasionally dragging the story down. But even with the book's technical flaws, it's an exhilarating read. I read this as research for one of my books, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who's looking for an interesting (and terrifying) real life story.