Category Archives: Reading Now

Currently Reading: Louise Erdrich

The Antelope Wife (1998); “The Years of My Birth” (2011)


Louise Erdrich got her MFA in Poetry from Hopkins, and her every line of fiction is infused with rich language and rhythm.  I love that she toggles between matter-of-factness (“Nurse,” the doctor said.  “Too late,” she answered) and mysticism and otherworldliness (“Into this disinfected despair, there came a presence, someone or something, who grieved with me and held my hand.”)

Sherman Alexie–also a poet and fiction writer–and Louise Erdrich are often spoken of together, the two best-known authors on Native American themes.  I’ve read almost everything of Alexie’s; he’ll do that tonal shifting as well, but he very rarely goes quite as far into that beautiful spirit-language as Erdrich does.  Though (especially compared to Alexie) she does seem better suited for shorter forms than long narrative.

A master class in:

Openings.  Here’s “The Years of My Birth,” first lines: “The nurse had wrapped my brother in a blue flannel blanket and was just about to hand him to his mother when she whispered, ‘Oh, God, there’s another one,’ and out I slid, half dead.  I then proceeded to die in earnest, going from slightly pink to a dull gray-blue, at which point the nurse tried to scoop me into a bed warmed by lights.”

Immediate setting, character, conflict, and voice.  (Come to think of it, Alexie also likes to start with the birth of a dying baby.)  It’s important, I think, to conceive of openings as generous things: they have to give.  In the MFA, we talked about the entire atomic makeup of the story being present in its first paragraph.  This first-person reflection on the half-dead baby is an opening that gives.

The Love Rack.  I often have a hard time making my characters care-about-able.  Screenwriters now are all talking about the “save the cat” moment, and here’s James M. Cain on the “love rack”:

“He [Vincent Lawrence] had a device which he thought was so important—the “love rack” he called it. I have never yet, as I sit here, figured out how this goddamn rack was spelled . . . whether it was wrack, or rack, or what dictionary connection could be found between the word and his concept. What he meant by the “love rack” was the poetic situation whereby the audience felt the love between the characters. He called this the “one, the two and the three.” Someone, I think it was Phil Goodman, the producer and another great influence, once reminded him that this one, two, and three was nothing more than Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end.”

But I’ve always had trouble with the idea of the watershed in fiction–does it really represent the way life is?  (This will be another post sometime.)  In any case, there’s a subtler option.  Here’s Erdrich on a father-daughter in The Antelope Wife: “Once, he holds her foot in the cradle of his palm and with the adept point of his hunting knife painlessly delivers a splinter, long and pale and bloody.  Teaches her to round her c‘s and put tiny teakettle handles on her a‘s. Crooks stray hairs behind her ears.”  Not a single save-the-cat or a love-rack moment, but a long collection of little actions that make us feel the love.

Favorite lines:

“She howled and scratched herself half-blind and at last so viciously took leave of her mind that the old ones got together and decided to change her name. …The namer went away, starved and sang and dreamed, until it was clear that the only name that made any sense at all was the name of the place where the old Blue Prairie Woman had gone to fetch back her child. Other Side of the Earth.”

“After that, our nights are something I can’t address in the day, as though we’re wearing other bodies, other people’s flaming skins.”

“You wouldn’t think a man as ordinary as myself could win a woman who turns the heads of others on the streets. Yet…”

“The women in my family are the kind to argue with the spirits.”

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Currently Reading: Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013); St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006)


Apparently, Vampires went over poorly with the reading group I didn’t attend this month.  Glad I didn’t go, because I’d have had a hard time sitting through an unenthused meeting, given how thoroughly I enjoyed existing within the worlds and language of this collection.  The title story and “Reeling for Empire” were such deeply evocative otherworlds, but the final story–“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”–was it for me.  The best story in the collection.  Russell’s handling of the gay themes, completely subtextual and yet painfully present, was incredible.  The last line, “Somewhere I think I must still be standing, just like that,” rang with me for days.  Such a haunting, restrained, accomplished story.

All of which led me to St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a collection that featured the same sharp, arresting language, but in service of stories that felt to me looser.  (I am excepting here the middle stories in Vampires, which I admit I found weak, though forgivably so thanks to their bookends.)

A master class in:

WORDS.  A friend of mine in the Hopkins MFA kvells about his experience in Karen Russell’s class at Williams, and I understand why: her relationship with rich, full, textured, unexpected, pause-worthy nouns and verbs is unreal.  Nouns are verbs (piano; candle; constellate.)  Verbs have verve (spool; limn; loam.)  Nouns are sumptuous (defenestration; caul; sacrum; meridian.)

As a reader, I am willing to forgive all manner of plot holes and stalled pacing in light of such deft use of language.  This is why I love Jeanette Winterson’s writing.  And I am in awe of the facility with which Russell makes her passionate love of language evident in every line.

Favorite lines:

“This is it, this is the geographical limit of how far I’ll go for Ossie.  We are learning latitude and longitude in school, and it makes my face burn that I can graph the coordinates of my own love and courage with such damning precision.”

“On land, Ossie’s body looks like an unmade bed, all lumpy and disheveled.  But in the moonlight, my naked sister is lustrous, almost holy….All this time, my odd-waddling sister has been living in a mother’s body.”

“Olivia was a cartographer of imaginary places…nostalgic for places that [she]’d never been.”

“Our stupid, rain-diluted longing.”

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Currently reading: Americanah

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)


Beautiful, deft prose.  Tragic romance (my favorite kind; not in the classical sense), but a more thoughtful than emotional read, because Adichie so assiduously avoids melodrama, so readily moves us to the next scene.  The blog posts occasionally felt heavy-handed, though the meditations on race therein were necessary and provocative.  Set partly in Baltimore and at Yale–Adichie is a fellow JHU MFA alum!–so I was reading about the two homes of my adult life.  Fully, richly rendered, immensely accomplished.  Highly recommended.

A master class in:

Chapter 22!  Chapter 22!  Precise charting of close indirect emotional reactions; use of setting for pacing; surprising yet believable dialogue.

Favorite lines:

“In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat.”

“He thought again of the Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi woman and the shadow of grief from which she was only just emerging, and he thought of…the life he now had, lacquered as it was by work and reading, by panic and hope. He had never felt so lonely.”

“I don’t want to be a sweetheart.  I want to be the fucking love of your life.”  (See: Chapter 22! Surprising yet believable dialogue.)

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