Sunday, June 26, 2011

You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, by Heather Sellers

If you're a memoir fan you'll love this offering by Heather Sellers. Sellers' account of her upbringing -- psychotic mother and alcoholic, cross-dressing father -- makes my own crazy childhood sound like "Leave it to Beaver." But the meat of Sellers story isn't the chaos of her childhood, but a neurological condition, one she didn't realize she suffered from until she was an adult, called prosopagnosia, or face blindness.

This intriguing condition leaves Sellers unable to recognize faces, and the anecdotes she shares -- one, for instance, about walking right past her boyfriend -- are in turns bizarre, funny and sad.

Seller's memoir is really two overlapping stories: one of a child growing up with crazy parents, and the other of an adult with a strange disorder, and this structure gave YDLMA a fragmented feel. Although there is no known cause for face blindness, Sellers interweaves the stories as if there is a connection between her crazy childhood and her face blindness. Sellers also tosses around the idea that her prosopagnosia might have resulted from the concussion she suffered when her father hit her on the head with a frying pan.

All this drama and trauma had to cause her distress, but Sellers takes an even hand to the telling; she's not vying for sympathy. Sellers' don't-cry-for-me tone, though, kept me from being able to fully sympathize with her. Her steady, this-is-just-the-way-it-was voice kept me at arm's length. Still, if you're anything like me, you'll be riveted by Sellers' unusual, compelling story.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

Parenting. What other subject triggers such anxiety? Chua's memoir describes her type A parenting philosophy, as she tells the story of raising her two daughters.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a rollicking summer read. Chua writes a lively, compelling story. Half the fun was comparing my mothering to Chua's. I labeled Chua a "Nazi Mother" when she described how harsh she was with her daughters. I held myself up as poster child for slacker mothers when she described the astonishing accomplishments her intense parenting produced.

Look. I'm the mother of three teenagers. I get my fair share of eye-rolling and looks that drip with disdain. But reading how Chua sometimes shamed her daughters to get them to perform at such high levels made me feel like mother of the year.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Richard Russo, the Grand Finale, Part Three.

Devora Mack, my great-grandmother, was one of the many faces from the past featured on a large poster board I displayed in the front of the synagogue the morning of my son's bar mitzvah. Devora, who passed in 1939, was known to my father as Babalompola (his child version of baba from Yompola). Thanks to my dad's stories, Babalompola has reigned supreme throughout the years when I dream of my ancestors, so imagine my thrill at getting my hands on her photograph! This pic came courtesy of one of Babalompola's granddaughters, Lorraine Raskin. Lorraine told me how scared she was as a child when she did her granddaughterly duty and bent over the ever supine Babalompola, to kiss her. Dad, on the other hand, tells of a kind, gentle, and not-at-all-scary Baba, one unable to get up off the couch as the result of the watermelon-sized tumor in her gut, supposedly of the "female variety."

Life and stories are like this: there's never one answer, one point of view, or one way of telling the tale. For instance, those uber-observant cousins who came to celebrate my son's bar mitzvah, the ones I mentioned in Part Two. I wrote you how crazy complicated it was to arrange walking-distance accommodations for them because, well, I'm a glass half-empty kind of girl. Sure, it was discombobulating to figure out how to make their visit possible, but if I was a glass half-full kind of girl, my story would have told how happy I was that my cousins made this trip to celebrate with me. After decades of estrangement we've reconciled, and this was a show of their love and support. So what's my point? I guess my point is this: when you peel back a story, there are always more layers.

Russo's multi-layered visit at Butler ended with a Q&A especially for Butler's English students. Here Russo shared more thoughts on writing.

He explained that in the beginning of his writing career he envisioned his readers as average, working people -- just like the characters in his books. It wasn't until much later that he realized the average, working person doesn't want to be reminded of the sadness and limits in his world; he or she reads -- if he or she even has time to read -- to escape. Russo said he now knows that he is writing for an educated and urban reader, one that may have a small town in his/her background.

Russo spoke about writing about women. He said that because women are in the forefront of his life, he finds himself writing about women more and more. This was scary at first, though, because he was afraid of being told he doesn't understand women.

In speaking about his nonfiction work Russo said he initially shaped his pieces as fiction even though they were factual. The thought of calling the work nonfiction was unnerving. In discussing the tangled boundaries between fiction and fact, Russo said that the question isn't Did you invent this? but How is this shaped? He mentioned Jenny Boyle, a memoirist he admires, a transsexual who transitioned from man to woman. In speaking about Jenny, Russo mentioned this quote: Just because it didn't happen doesn't mean it's not true. Now that's a line to remember! Russo said his recent writing has made him realize that the distinctions between fact and fiction are blurred.

Russo said that a writer can't create fictional characters without first learning empathy, and that fiction in general is a complicated business, and many attempting it fail. Every artistic decision the author makes takes other options off the table, and further limits every other choice the author makes down the line. He noted that in the journey to becoming an accomplished writer, the last things to come are voice, and a sense of the author's identity and style.

Russo ended his Q&A by discussing the genesis of his novels, saying that each new novel is born out of the dissatisfaction of the novel that came before.

Russo's visit was richer than I could ever imagine, as was my son's bar mitzvah. My uber-observant cousins came, as did my brother, who I've only seen a few times in the past decade. After so many years of living in the land of family-hunger, everyone who has ever staked a claim to my heart found a way to come to Indy and join in my family's celebration. We shared Shabbos dinner the night before the ceremony, listened while my son read from the Torah during his bar mitzvah, and danced to raucous music way later that night, staying up way past our bedtimes. We laughed and reminisced. We bickered and disagreed. We are family -- the best device ever for introducing drama and conflict into a story. The weekend passed like a dream. Even though it's true that, as Russo said, something doesn't have to actually happen for it to be true, I think a version of the flip side also holds: When what you want most in life finally comes true, it may take awhile for it to feel true.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Richard Russo, the Grand Finale. Part Two.

Richard Russo's visit to Butler was the grand finale of the year's Visiting Writers' Series. In my last post I wrote of part one of hits grand finale: Russo's jaw-droppingly instructive roundtable discussion of the five finalists in Booth's First Chapter Contest. I also mentioned a recent personal grand finale in the form of my son's bar mitzvah, the culmination of more months of planning than I care to admit. Part one of Sam's bar mitzvah began with this photo of my husband's ancestors.

Can't even remember where I got this gem; might have come from one of the piles of old photos my mother-in-law had squirreled away in her attic; might have been sent by dear Uncle Beryl. What matters more than its provenance, though, is the image itself, so textured and complex. This is what enchanted me: the multitudes of stories, all mysterious, held within this single frame. The landscape is barren, but each one of the faces superimposed on it hints at worlds of hardships, sorrow, and love. Part one of Sam's bar mitzvah concluded with stacks of vellum and a mess of satiny, sepia-colored ribbon, which dressed up the photo, transforming it into the invitation to my son's big day.

Part Two of Russo's visit was the reading he gave to the packed crowd at Atherton Union. The reading was as multi-faceted as the picture of Charles's ancestors. Russo began by telling us that he had never understood why readers want to know about the personal lives of authors. Recently, though, he said he has come to understand that people bring a curiosity to the relationship between the author and his work. It was this notion, Russo said, that informed the pieces he chose to read that night. Trying something new, he picked a few nonfiction pieces, so he could share a bit about his life, and then followed those up with some fiction, so we could see the relationship between Russo and the stories he writes.

It was a well thought out plan that made for a fascinating reading. Russo's nonfiction was every bit as compelling as his fiction, and it was astounding to see the myriad points of connection between the two.

When Russo finished reading he made some general comments that addressed this connection. He noted that every author uses similar imagery and phraseology within his/her work. For the author these repetitions exist at the molecular level, and are about as close to the author's soul as one can get. Just as Dickens writes about orphans, Russo said, his own work speaks to the despair of small towns past their prime, and the price paid by the men and women who work to sustain them.

Here are a few comments from the Q&A that followed the reading:

When asked about a passage from "Bridge of Sighs" that inferred that men are needier than women, Russo replied that in order to go beyond a surface, intellectual understanding, and reach a bone-level understanding, men may need to experience the same thing multiple times. And in addressing the differences between the sexes from another angle, Russo said that literature doesn't exist as men's writing or women's writing, and that writers must be able to transcend the deep boundaries so as to not be trapped in their own experiences. In Russo's most quotable quote of the evening, said that what he believes in first and foremost is imagination.

When speaking about his short story collection, "The Whore's Child," Russo remarked that his protagonist needed to overcome seemingly insurmountable conflict, and that this is required for all great writing. Dramatic urgency. Russo reinforced that the necessary ingredient for a successful story is a conflict he can't figure out how to solve. Writers investigate territory where there are no answers, he said.

Russo spoke about his writing process, saying he begins by reading, to get words in his head. Then he writes for 2-3 hours, longhand, which produces about 2-3 pages. Then he revises. And then he repeats the sequence over and over.

Russo's reading was epic, I wouldn't have missed it for the world, but it couldn't hold a candle to part two of Sam's bar mitzvah. Russo spoke about creating insurmountable problems in his work. One of the practically insurmountable problems in bar mitzvah planning is that Indianapolis has no hotels within walking distance of the synagogues. Try figuring out how and where to house the good-hearted and generous uber-observant cousins who can't drive on the Sabbath seemed like a hopeless task.

Family and conflict; they go hand in hand, don't they? Looking back, everyone -- including myself -- behaved reasonably well, but that doesn't mean the event passed without a few great stories.

I'll save those for part three.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Richard Russo, the Grand Finale. Part One.

Still weeks behind on posting book reviews and recaps of author visits, it seems only fitting to put together the two grand finales that have recently marked my literary and personal life: Richard Russo's visit to Butler last April, and my youngest child's bar mitzvah, last weekend.

Each finale was comprised of several smaller events, and each of these were peppered with so many heart-touching moments, that a quick recap wouldn't do either justice.

Like any Jewish mother I started planning my son's bar mitzvah from the moment of his bris. Also, this was the last of my children to come of age. We were lucky enough to have family and friends come in for our celebration from all over the country. All these notions lent the bar mitzvah the feel of a grand finale.

Richard Russo was the last and biggest name on this year's Butler's Visiting Writers' Series's roster. Along with the prerequisite reading, Russo agreed to be the judge for a "First Chapter" writing competition staged by the editors at Booth, the literary journal at Butler (a genius idea, may I add). The afternoon before his reading, Russo gathered with us to go over the five finalists.

A little OCD about being late, I was the first one in the room. When the door opened, it was Russo! He entered, extended his hand, and with eyes smiling said, "Hi, call me Rick." I was floating. I think it's true that it can be a mistake to judge by first impressions, but sometimes first impressions say it all: Russo, a highly accomplished writer of considerable fame, came to Butler with a gracious, open heart.

What happened next was the stuff of dreams. No really, even I couldn't have dreamed this. Three of the editors of Booth, me, my classmate Maggie, and Russo, all sitting around a boardroom table. I have to admit I was pretty nervous; I had no idea how this meeting would play out. I figured Russo would announce the winning chapter, and then give us a brief rundown of the faults of the other four finalists. What actually happened was nothing like that. Russo introduced each of the final entries, one by one, and, while addressing us by name, asked each of us for our opinions. What ensued was a discussion on the merits and pitfalls of each piece. When we had all weighed in -- and, jeez, how intimidating is that? -- he added his own final thoughts. The meeting turned out to be a master class in novel writing, as he pointed us towards the hallmarks of what makes a winning first chapter.

One chapter, although by far the most polished and professional, lacked a sense of building drama; each of its scenes had the same weight, which led Russo to believe that not all of its aspects were fully imagined. He questioned whether the chapter's crystalline sentences were enough to sustain the novel, saying that they should serve the momentum of the story.

When evaluating another chapter he noted the lack of character development, saying that by the end of the first chapter the reader needed to know more about the protagonist.

The chapter written in epistolary style was a favorite among us, but Russo pointed out that although this unique style make a splash, he was doubtful it could sustain a novel. Russo's point was that although this style lends itself to rapid pacing, it doesn't allow the author to slow scenes down, or to immerse in the physical world of its characters.

Analyzing another chapter, he remarked that the author broke from scene before the action of the scene ended, and went into narration. It's important for an author to know, Russo said, what s(he) wants a scene to accomplish. Scene and narration ground a story over time, and the author of this chapter showed he wasn't comfortable writing either.

Russo then revealed the winning chapter, noting that although it was not the most polished entry, it wowed him with its strong characters, humor and wild imagination. During our discussion of this work he left us with these literary words of wisdom: an easy editing fix consists of marking stuff out with a pencil; what's more worrisome are gaps.

And with that, and a recommendation to read Russo's epic novel "Empire Falls" and his short story collection "The Whore's Child," I'll sign off. Stay tuned for part two of Russo's visit, and more on the epic Lerner bar mitzvah.