2016 First Novel Prize Shortlist aka My Fall Reading List

Go here for synopsis’s about these books.

A week ago the Center of Fiction announced the finalists for this years First Novel Prize. Seeing that the list was a lovely mix of women and color (plus one stoic male equivalent), and I’d already read and loved Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, I wanted to read other books first-time novelists were being celebrated for. The winner will be announced on December 6th so I hope to have read all except Kia Cothron’s The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter by then, which is a galloping 800 pages.

I snagged a free copy of Emma Cline’s The Girls during my creative writing class (which was equivalent to winning the lottery considering the amount of other people who’d shot their hands up for it), I’m halfway through and it’s so enjoyable. I find myself both inspired and wholly consumed with jealousy by Cline’s style, humor, and insight – so much confidence I didn’t think could (or should) exist in a twenty-seven year old writer. But Cline is an obvious exception to the rule and was published in Tin House by the time she was sixteen, while most of us teens were still figuring this writing thing out through angsty poetry.

These finalists have written novels that explore girlhood, freedom, homosexuality, loneliness, and race. For the same reasons I think it’s valuable to keep up to snuff with what literary magazines are publishing, I think it’s also good to read books by new novelists – it’s a direct observation of what the publishing and creative worlds are paying attention to.

Of the five books I haven’t yet read, I’m most excited to read Here Comes The Sun and will pick that one up once I’m done with The Girls. Have you read any of the books on the First Novel Prize shortlist? What did you think? Are any of these going on your ‘to read’ list? Do you have any guesses at which book might win?

Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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Photo: Goodreads

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

Yaa Gyasi’s hugely successful debut novel, Homegoing, is an epic tale of a family tree splintered by the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade; one branch is sold into slavery while the other remains in war torn Ghana. Beautiful half-sisters, Effia and Esi, live in separate villages and are both unaware that the other exists. At fifteen, Effia is made to marry James Collins, an Englishman and slaver, and lives with him in the comfort of the Gold Coast castle. Esi’s fate takes a different turn when she is captured by Ghanaian warriors and sold into slavery; she lives in the dark, soiled, dungeon of Gold Coast castle, unknowingly under the footsteps of her half sister, until she and thousands of other slaves are shipped to the United States. Sweeping 200 years and several generations from 18th century Ghana to the plantations of the American South, the coal mines in Alabama to the Great Migration, to the heroin epidemic in Harlem, and up until today, Homegoing is a massive undertaking that explores relationships, religion, how our inherited history forms identity, and the search for home.

Like Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or more recently, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Homegoing tells the heart wrenching story of multiple generations of one family, and does exceptionally well in only 300 pages. “How can I tell you the story of your scar without first telling you the story of my dreams? And how do I talk about my dreams without talking about my family?” one character says, setting us up for a plethora of family stories of separation and longing. The book reads like a series of interconnected short stories as chapters switch between Effia and Esi’s descendants, allowing for only a few pages for them to stand out, grab our attention, and tell their story, but Gyasi’s beautiful storytelling and ability to write deeply emotional scenes allows for that short span to be enough. There is a family tree at the beginning of the novel for reference, but it is seldom needed because Gyasi writes so clearly a character needs only to speak for a few lines before you’ve been placed in their shoes and know who their parents and grandparents are. Although the entire story is great, the first half of the book is particularly gripping because Gyasi spends more time establishing each character. As the story continues and the family get further away from Effia and Esi, the chapters shorten – there’s still a connection to the characters, but noticeably less.

Homegoing takes the slave narrative and gives it a much needed revamping by telling as much of the story as possible, focusing more on Africa (it’s involvement in slavery and the effects it had on the people still living there) than books of this sort usually do. Gyasi explores relationships between parents and their children, particularly mothers and daughter, and fathers and sons. There is a pattern of hard, unloving mothers, some through their own bitterness and others through slavery, and Gyasi writes about how this hardness trickles down their daughters. Esi, who used to smile and fill a room with her laughter, is broken down to the point that when her daughter Ness thinks of her, she only draws up the image of “the gray rock of her mother’s heart. She would always associate real love with a hardness of spirit.” This dovetails to the splintering of family in the United States, where Esi’s descendant Willie has raised her son alone, only to find that he’s grown to be as “absent as his own” father. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are seeing exactly how one thread leads to another; how one person’s actions affect the family down the line. Homegoing comes full circle with a character inspired by Gyasi’s life – Marjorie. Like Gyasi, Marjorie moves with her family from Ghana to Alabama and instantly realizes that although she has the same black skin as African Americans, she is “othered” because she is a different, far too distant to feel at home in the United States. Here is when we see a culmination of history, the people who made it, and how we are all children of that shared history.

Gyasi reached for the stars with this epic family story and she writes with confidence and clarity most authors only muster up after a few successful novels. Homegoing is a must read that will open eyes to a whole new spectrum of the slave narrative.

Have you read Homegoing? What did you think of it? Are you planning on reading it?

Review: Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

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Photo: Goodreads

Night fell long and cool through the woods about him and spectral quietude set in. As if something were about that crickets and nightbirds held in dread. He went on faster. With full dark he was confused in a swampy forest, floundering through sucking quagmires… in full flight now, the trees beginning to close him in, malign and baleful shapes that reared like enormous androids provoked at the alien insubstantiality of this flesh colliding among them.

Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark was published by Random House in 1968 at the peak of the Southern Gothic literature scene, and is peppered with genre specific tropes McCarthy does so well – grotesque themes, damaged and delusional characters on the outskirts of society, an underlying theme that fate or something just as menacing and inescapable is just out of the field of vision. That lingering maliciousness hovers over Rinthy and Culla Holmes, siblings residing in an isolated cabin in Johnson County, a non distinct town hued in shadow (similar to the main characters in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

Rinthy bears her brother’s child, suffering through a long labor because he is unwilling to get a midwife, worried she might reveal their insectuous secret. When Rinthy finally rests, Culla takes the baby and leaves it in the woods, telling his sister the child fell ill and died. Rinthy quickly discovers an empty grave and sets off to find a tinker, suspecting her brother has sold the baby because no one else has passed their home in months. Culla leaves too, supposedly to bring Rinthy home, but his aimlessness seems more like an escape from the persecution of his sins.

On their separate paths, Rinthy and Culla encounter different degrees of hospitality. Rinthy’s innocent nature and sickly physique encourage strangers to welcome her with food and shelter, while Culla is met with suspicion, violence, and denied work. Three mysterious men follow Culla for what seems like no reason at all, until we discover this is a story about inhumanity and prophesy, all culminating in a judgement day-like conclusion.

With Outer Dark being McCarthy’s second novel you may expect amateur writing as he figures out his literary limbs, but he was very ambitious (and successful) in the themes he chose to explore in the novel. McCarthy studies the strange behavior of his characters, their dialect, mental instabilities, and ultimately the harm they do to each other, a point illuminated by the tinker when he says he has “seen the meanness of humans till I dont know why God aint put out the sun and gone away.”  The novel also deals in the themes of blindness, darkness, and religion, the title itself referring to a biblical verse “And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 25:30 (KJV) a foreboding to apocalyptic revelations to come, like the rapture itself.

Lyricism compliments broken dialogue, simple people and surroundings, and as the story progresses McCarthy plays with reader’s anticipations. We’re convinced something terrible will happen, so he draws the situation out one string at a time, slowly teasing it apart, growing more deliberate towards later chapters where Rinthy and Culla’s dovetailing  paths draw closer to a similar dire fate; Holmes dealing with death face on, and Rinthy close on the tinker’s heels.

Even with the bleak themes of Southern Gothic, Outer Dark is a tamer version of McCarthy’s usual work, so is a good choice for starting out if you’ve yet to give him a read. Still, in it’s “tamer” nature, there will be moments when you turn away from the page and it’s unpleasant details, but will finish the book with an idea of reading it again.  Cormac McCarthy is not for the faint of heart or ego. If you’re a writer, read this book knowing that you will question everything you’ve ever written as rubbish, but will learn a great deal. My copy of Outer Dark is full of highlights and marginal notes, like any good book should be.

Book six of ten books of summer.

Have you read Outer Dark? What did you think of it? Have you read any of Cormac McCarthy’s other books? Can you stomach gruesome subjects in writing or is it a put off/distraction for you? What book do you own with the most highlights or notes?

A little note for #20booksofsummer, I’m currently reading my seventh book, Homegoing (which is great and will have a review up next week), and will be tapping out at that. It’s been great reading some books off of my shelf but I seriously miss lit mags and new books! 🙂

Craft Quote #6 – Using Plot as a Device

While scrolling through my wordpress reader I came across Longreads Top 5 Longreads of the Week. Longreads is a blog that regularly posts excellent content for writers and this week they linked to a compilation of articles focused on how to plot a novel, in it is a fun article that provides an encyclopedia of every kind of literary plot (ever) including examples of books that use that specific device effectively and plot devices that used to work before the technological age took over. It offers plenty of useful links and is well worth the read if you’re interested in playing around with any of these plots for your own stories.

Here are a few author’s responses to whether they believe plot should be a center device in novels:

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Photo: Vulture.com

There are commandments that the storytelling community generally agree on; thou shalt write daily, thou shalt not plagiarize, thou shalt not use adverbs in vain, but there are many parts of the writing process that go disputed between it’s disciples. The decision of whether to use plot as a main story driver (rather than characters or the writing itself) depends on the individual, what they are writing, and who they are writing for.

While plot is necessary for certain types of genres like detective mysteries, other genres have more freedom when it comes to letting prose, character and emotion drive the story alongside minimal plot. I agree with Grace Paley (poet and short story writer) in that all stories have a plot that sets us in a time, place, and situation, but plot is best utilized when playing a small role in a story rather than a central part in it. I also agree with Bret Easton Ellis (author of American Psycho) when he says that without plot there still must be a banal entity “to keep it [the story] moving forward”. As a reader I enjoy stories that leave me in expectation, which can come from the right words, descriptions of place, and emotions. An example of a writer who does this very well is Cormac McCarthy. His stories are rarely more than a hero’s (or anti-hero’s) journey pushed to new levels because of descriptive writing that draws in readers. In the end you don’t care too much about what’s happening because you’re in it for everything else.

Do you lean towards plots or prose (or anything else) as a center of a story? Do you know of any authors who write this way that you enjoy or don’t enjoy reading?

Physics: A Short Story

The security guard hears the car long before he sees it. It’s low silhouette spits towards the parking lot and is the first to arrive, beating the sun that is barely risen above the hills, an arc of light in the blue-black sky visible then hidden again by fibrous rain clouds. The guard’s box is illuminated as the old two-tone Subaru pulls forward. He gets up and pokes his wide torso out of the warm box, the cold and wet coming in. His hands visor his eyes and motion for the car to go through. He squints to see the driver through the rain, the windshield wipers move too slow to clear the stream of water that casts a shimmer on the driver’s face, the wide set eyes constantly wavering. The woman smiles hard but the rain makes it look like she’s been crying, or maybe she has been crying. Her hand reaches from the car with a cardboard box and the officer takes it and smiles back, says his wife will literally kill him if he has another donut, that’s if his sugar doesn’t do it first, and waves the woman into the empty lot where she parks in a spot furthest from the entrance.

Adannaya turns the engine off and lays her head back, closes her eyes. The temporary black is the closest thing to sleep and the faint drumroll on the roof will do for a lullaby. The urge to cry rises again, from her stomach into her throat, but she takes another hit instead and fills the car with a smoke that makes the world look like it’s been covered with ground glass. She inhales until her lungs are at full capacity, holds even longer, then exhales smooth letting the smoke and everything else go. The car is warm and fragrant and smells like her home, seaside scented candles and peach flavored rolling papers in an overflowing ashtray. Helium-filled balloons bob about the car in a kaleidoscopic fog. She turns and retrieves a bouquet of sunburnt and bell shaped lilies, a stapled brown baggie of her mother’s prescriptions, the balloons nod their encouragements. The walk to the hospital is long and quiet save for slow footfalls across the graveled lot. Adannaya jumps once, but there’s not enough helium or hope to go anywhere.

Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

boysnowbird10booksofsummerdrunkoffrhetoricNobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s.

Boy Novak falls under a spell whenever she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror, glass, a knife, anything that bounces light and casts a reflection back at her. When she marries Arturo Whitman and becomes stepmother to his daughter Snow, “an extraordinary-looking kid. A medieval swan maiden…”, Boy becomes jealous and obsessed with Snow and the idea that evil may be hiding under her amiable exterior. As Boy’s past has proven time and again “people can smile and smile and still be villains”. This dark, unsettling novel is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth and as a fairly young novelist, she continues to explore familiar themes of fantastical worlds, brimming with narratives on race, jealousy, and the perception of beauty.

Although the back cover of Boy, Snow, Bird advertises that the novel “brilliantly recasts the Snow White fairy tale as a story of family secrets”, outside of family drama and a character’s name very similar to Snow White (Snow Whitman), the blurb is misleading. Go into the book with knowledge that you will not read anything remotely resembling the fairy tale and save yourself frustration that many readers are having with this book. Boy, Snow, Bird is a re-imagining in the broadest sense of the word that plays wonderfully with some motifs in Snow White; this story delivers on magic mirrors, a desire to be the “fairest of them all”, and evil undertones push to the forefront.

Boy’s story starts in 1953 when she runs away from her home and abusive father, Frank Novak, also known as “the rat catcher” due to his profession. Boy escapes on a train to the end of the line and arrives at Flax Hill, Massachusetts “a town of specialists” and a far cry from her former life. Still toting a blanket belonging to her previous lover, she marries Arturo Whitman while unsure of whether she loves him. Arturo and Boy’s relationship is a strange one, birthed from a general loathing for each other, suddenly morphed into an attraction. And when she gives birth to a dark-skinned, clearly “colored” daughter, Bird, the Whitman’s are exposed as light-skinned African Americans passing as white. Rather than send Bird to live with Arturo’s dark skinned sister (keeping the family secret well hidden, as Olivia, Arturo’s mother, hopes) Boy sends Snow away instead. Although Boy’s intentions are “good” as her goal is to protect Bird from comparisons to a much more eurocentrically beautiful Snow, Boy gives into the role of evil stepmother when she chooses to send Snow away because she is too “fair”.

Snow’s beauty is all the more precious to Olivia and Agnes because it’s a trick. When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl.

Split into three parts, the first and last chapter are narrated by Boy and the second is Bird’s, along with some letters between her and Snow revealing they both look into mirrors and sometimes do not see their reflections at all. Oyeyemi’s style is confident in all of it’s fantasy, providing sure footing for readers in an unfamiliar world as the story is lined with some nuggets of real life, such as Emmett Till’s slaying after whistling at a white woman, which the family discuss during a heated conversation over dinner. This helps draw us back to the weight behind the kind of impostor game the Whitman’s are playing. But in spite of stellar writing, Boy, Snow, Bird suffers from shortcomings any story with as many topics of discussion would; there are a hoard of half-baked characters – relatives, friends, friends of friends, that provide a layer of white noise and come in and out of the story. Added to the novel’s surreal style, this muddle of characters, and a lack of sense of character motives and relationships, makes for a disjointed plot that can be a slow read.

When Boy finds out the Whitman’s are actually black and sends Snow away, there are almost no consequences. There are basically no ramifications for anyone in the story, all of which do bad things. Oyeyemi makes an attempt to regain readers with a daring but undesirable twist, seemingly absolving all of the characters of any prior wrongdoing regardless of everything we just read. For some, this may beg the question; why is this story even being told? As this book is built from unreliable narrators and the notion that surface appearances are given way too much value I am hoping, like the mirror, Boy, Snow, Bird is just one of those things that needs a second, closer look to reveal its true meaning.

Book three out of ten book of summer.

Have you read Boy, Snow, Bird? I’m really interested to know what your thoughts are on it, or on this whole fairy tale “re-imagining” business in general. Is it possible to do that well? I am still under the impression that I may have to read this book again to get the full benefit of what Oyeyemi is trying to do, but we all know how that goes…

Craft Quote #4 – Good Writers Read [All] Books

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Photo: jennyhallart.com

Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.

– William Faulkner

Almost every writer can be quoted as saying something similar, but it does not quite hit home until a Nobel Prize winning novelist, short story author, and most influential American writer of the twentieth century marks it as good advice (especially for us aspiring writers). Read often, read outside of your comfort zone, read the unexpected.

What are you reading? What are the most influential books you’ve read? Who are some of your go-to authors for inspiration or just a good old lit fix?