****The Nix

demonstration

photo: Pedro Lozano, creative commons license

By Nathan Hill, narrated by Ari Fliakos – A lot happens in the early pages of this multilayered novel set in the American Midwest: a woman throws a few bits of gravel at a right-wing presidential candidate; adepts play a round of the immersive multi-role-player game World of Elfscape; and untenured college professor Samuel Andreson Anderson debates how to handle plagiarizing student Laura Pottsdam.

Then the pieces start to fit. The professor is one of the gamers, indulging in his e-addiction when he should be doing something productive, like working on the book he’s contracted to write, and for which he received a healthy advance. Another piece clicks into place when Samuel meets with his impatient publisher, who reveals the gravel-thrower was his mother Faye, who abandoned her son when he was 11. If he will only write Faye’s biography—how she came to be such a dangerous radical terrorist—all will be forgiven, and he won’t have to return the advance, long-since spent.

The problem is, he knows nothing about his mother. Once he starts asking questions, though, he realizes how badly he wants some answers. At first the clues are scant. The novel spends time on Samuel’s childhood and the Norwegian legends his immigrant grandfather and mother passed on to him. The one that gave the book its title is the household spirit—the Nix—whose mission is to foil a person’s plans. The lesson of the Nix is: “Don’t trust things that are too good to be true.” Once a Nix latches onto you, it never leaves. “A person can be a Nix to another person,” his mother explains, and pretty much everyone in this book has Nixes to contend with. That includes Samuel’s best childhood friends, Bishop and his twin sister, the violin prodigy Bethany.

Samuel learns that his mother was briefly a student in Chicago in 1968, as the radicals and the Establishment prepared for the Democratic convention. For a while, his mother’s story takes over the narrative, and though her students days were short, they were filled with incident and the outsize personalities of the counterculture and its foes. Faye had a Nix too.

Jason Sheehan for NPR said the lives of both Samuel and Faye were filled with “the small mistakes that become a life’s great tragedies,” or you could just say their Nixes keep getting in the way.

With its sly and at time hilarious commentary on American culture of the Sixties and today, The Nix was chosen by numerous publications as a Notable Book of 2016. Though the book is hard to describe without becoming entangled in its richly conceived plot, it’s author Hill’s writing—“looping, run-on, wildly digressive pages,” Sheehan says—and the on-point humor that pull you in. An early scene in which the plagiarist student Laura explains why she shouldn’t be penalized for her poor performance is a LOL model of self-absorption and self-justification.

Narrator Ari Fliakos does a fine job inhabiting the characters—not just the principals, but also the entitled Laura, the self-satisfied Chicago protestors, the insufferable publisher, and the World of Elfscape-obsessed Pwnage (pronounced Pone-aj). At almost 22 hours, it is rather a long book for listening, yet I enjoyed it a lot.

***Selection Day

Mumbai, cricket

photo: David Brossard, creative commons license

By Aravind Adiga, narrated by Sartaj Garewal – Adiga’s 2017 novel purports to be about two brothers, growing up in a Mumbai slum, under the obsessive protection of their cricket-crazy father—a helicopter parent with a swinging cricket bat for a rotor blade. Adiga’s debut novel The White Tiger was such a witty, penetrating exploration of economics and capitalism and how they affect the average person (and a winner of the Man Booker Prize) that I eagerly awaited this one. If he can make economics entertaining, cricket should be a snap, right?

To read the book, it thankfully isn’t necessary to understand cricket’s impenetrable mysteries. The novel is in essence a coming-of-age story, a story of when to hold on to parental values and when to abandon them, of the choices that come the boys’ way and what they do with them, and the intrusions of fate.

There are some wonderful characters: the boys Radha Kumar and his principal rival in cricket and in life, his younger brother Manju, their clueless dad—the lowly chutney salesman Mohan—and the local cricket talent scout Tommy Sir, among many others. Years of effort are guiding the boys’ efforts to “selection day,” when just a couple of up-and-coming 17-year-olds will be chosen to play for Bombay Cricket. That one day will make the boys’ future or break their father’s heart. Possibly both.

One of the best aspects of the book is the relationship between the boys. Said Carmela Ciuraru in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Adiga superbly captures the intimacy between the two brothers, as they bicker, tease and protect each other” and as Manju struggles with his sexuality. Also entertaining were the cricket officials’ efforts to keep the father away from the playing fields. Anyone who’s been especially close to a brother or who’s observed the obsessive parents at their children’s sporting events can identify with the dilemmas of this striving family. Again, says Ciuraru, Adiga’s take is “both satirical and affectionate as he shows how the sport is less a means of lifting gifted kids out of poverty than reinforcing boundaries of privilege in rather ruthless ways.”

The book begins three years before the Selection Day in which Radha will participate and a short concluding section takes place eleven years later. As a tremendous fan of audio books, I was quite disappointed in the narration by Sartaj Garewal and believe it is at least partly responsible for my not becoming fully engaged with this book. Read a print version.

Oscar Shorts Nominees 2017: Live Action

SingEvery one of these five Live Action Oscar nominees was a winner! A diverse group in subject matter and national origin, though all European, this was one of the consistently best live action collections we’ve seen. Here they are:

  • Sing – a Hungarian film (trailer) directed by Kristóf Deák—what happens when a choral teacher bent on winning an important prize tells some of the children “just don’t sing.” Elementary solidarity (photo)! Charming. (25 minutes)
  • Silent Nights – from Denmark (trailer), directed by Aske Bang. A young Danish woman working for the Salvation Army falls for a poor Ghanian man, who neglects to tell her about the wife and kids back home. Wise words from her boss save her. Generous. (30 minutes)
  • Timecode – a 15-minute film (trailer) from Spain, directed by Juanjo Giménez. The day and night shift security staff at a parking garage exchange the barest civilities as they change places, but find an innovative way to communicate. Hilarious! (15 minutes)(watch it here)
  • Ennemis Intérieurs – this French film (trailer), directed by Selim Azzazi, is a chilling display of how a suspicious government can twist even the most innocent statements into accusations. It takes the form of an interview between a determined policeman of Algerian descent and a French-born Algerian man seeking citizenship in the 1990s, during the Algerian civil war, with obvious application to today’s tensions. Powerful. (28 minutes)
  • La Femme et le TGV – in this Swiss film (trailer & “the making of”), directed by Timo von Gunten and shot in one week, an older woman (Jane Birkin) waves at the TGV train morning and evening before heading to the desultory bakery she owns. When the train engineer tosses a note out to her, a correspondence begins. One day, the train does not come, and she must go in search of a less lonely future. Sweet. (30 minutes)

My favorite? Timecode was the most fun, La Femme the most beautiful, and Ennemis Interieurs the most significant, and the winner, Sing, the sentimental fave.

Coverage of the documentary shorts here.

Finding Your Story

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, banned books

(photo: wikipedia.org)

Whether you think of yourself as a plot-driven author, a character-driven writer, or one who relies on creating a compelling situation, stuff has to happen on your pages or readers will stop turning them. Stuff that truly tests your characters.

In an excellent recent online essay about plot, novelist and former literary agent Barbara Rogan cites Mark Twain’s advice: “The writer’s job is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” Think Huck Finn and Jim on the raft. In other words, keep the problems coming. Readers want to see characters succeed, fail, change, and grow, but, she says, “Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes.” I would append this thought “and overcoming a wildly unrealistic challenge doesn’t work, either.” It’s the author’s victory, not the character’s.” Some thrillers cross that line.

Maybe an author starts with an exciting, possibly (fingers crossed) film-worthy opening scene. That and its aftermath are dealt with, then there’s a slog to the skating-on-the-edge-of-disaster conclusion. What happened in the middle? Not enough, very likely. A saggy middle is the bane of new authors and people over 40 alike. Says Donald Maass, another widely respected literary agent and author, “For virtually all novelists, the challenge is to push farther, go deeper, and get mean and nasty.” Plot-driven novelists do it with incident, character-driven ones by ramping up internal conflict. Stephen King doesn’t rely on plot at all. He starts with a situation, a predicament, and then watches his character “try to work themselves free.”

Tellingly, King says, “my job isn’t to try to help them” free themselves, but to observe them and write it down. That’s such an important point. You can’t go easy on your characters, however attached you are to them. Rogan says when authors “smooth the way for their protagonists”—making clues come too easily or difficulties to easily overcome, giving them a midtown Manhattan parking place just when they need it (!), authors are behaving like “benevolent gods”—a trap my own writing sometimes falls into. I like my characters, even some of the baddies; but I cannot be their mum. What characters learn, they must learn at a cost in physical or emotional pain—preferably both. That makes readers care about them.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran FoerExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the protagonist, precocious nine-year-old Oskar Schell, has a mysterious key belonging to his dead father, and he want to find the lock it will open. He believes someone named Black knows what lock that is. Lots of people in the New York City phone book are named Black, and Oskar visits them all. If the key had belonged to Aaron Black, this would have been a short story.

As in real life, Oskar and other successful fictional characters have to work hard to find their answers. As do the writers who create them.

 

On the CriFi Horizon

June Lorraine Roberts

June Lorraine Roberts

Vicki asked me to comment on where the crime fiction (CriFi) genre is headed. I’ve enjoyed her diverse and timely blog for a while now. Certainly, her request has caused much reflection on my part.

Let me start with an online definition of crime fiction. Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct.

I quite like the term indistinct. It indicates the versatility and flexibility available to the genre. Two posts I did earlier this year were on the blend of science fiction and steam punk with crime fiction. For me it’s one way to broaden reading horizons and generate ideas on how to move CriFi forward.

Several books have done well examining marriage and family relationships within crime fiction since Gone Girl appeared on shelves. The word ‘Girl’ still appears in book titles, but not for much longer I suspect.

What’s next? If we could predict the next big trend we’d be hard at writing it now. However, there are authors who are using an inventive edge.

Currently, I’m halfway through Fickle by Peter Manus. Written as blog posts on two different websites, followers speculate and ask questions of the bloggers. The storyline is easy to follow, no talking over one another. And it’s well done. I have no idea how the book will wrap up, but it’s sharp and clever and I’m enjoying its modern, noir atmosphere.

Is it the next big thing? Probably not. But it makes the point that, when talent isn’t enough, a different way of looking at things can boost the likelihood of being published. One of the many challenges for writers today is beating the numbers and getting your book noticed. First by an agent, then by a publisher, and then by readers. Every year thousands of CriFi books are released worldwide by publishing houses. Imagine how many more are self-published!

A number of recent books run dual storylines: past and present. While not new, this construct is very effective at moving along a storyline, giving readers the backstory for the main character in a concise fashion. (I just reviewed one exactly like this—What Remains of Me—for CrimeFictionLover.com—ed.)

In other storylines, we have narratives written from the perspective of two or more characters. Add to that blog posts from two websites, and location changes for protagonists–all this shows a duality of nature that is as common as villain vs. hero. Perhaps there is opportunity here to leverage our creativity and reader interest. Or at least to have us think about storylines from a different slant.

It’s the openness to new ideas and the willingness to try an atypical approach that marks today’s crime fiction. It speaks to our society and the cultural mores of this place in time. Much has changed in the past 15 years. What we need to do, as authors, is harness the change and let it generate new ideas, and, as readers, be willing to experiment.

The thing about a book is that it is both tangible and intangible. You can hold a book in your hands and take it many places. But the story, the story is what you carry inside you, and it can take you to places you never expected.

Guest poster June Lorraine Roberts is a Canadian and a graduate of the London School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in Tengri Magazine and Aware Magazine. Her first CriFi flash fiction story was picked-up by the Flash Fiction Press earlier this year, and she continues to work at plotting devious story lines. Check out her website: MurderinCommon.com.

Ireland’s Easter Rising Reconsidered

Easter Rising

The dying Cú Chulainn, photo: wikimedia

2016 marked the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising, when Irish Republicans staged an armed insurrection aimed at achieving independence from Britain and establishing a separate Irish Republic. At the same time, many Irish citizens were fighting in World War I.

For that anniversary, two Boston College professors—novelist and philosopher Richard Kearney and artist Sheila Gallagher—created a performance in images, music, and words to expand the perception of those events. Called “Twinsome Minds: Recovering 1916 in Images and Stories,” they presented it last week at Princeton University, their 16th performance, I believe.

What did I think? I liked all the pieces—images, music, words—but was the whole more than the sum of the parts? Did the underlying conceit work? The idea for “Twinsome Minds” comes from a line in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. “Irish imagination is at its best, said Joyce, when moving between two ‘twinsome’ minds—that is, when it has ‘two thinks at a time’ opening onto a third,” Kearney said. In that it was partially successful.

I most liked the stories, and found the images alternately beautiful and distracting. Clipping headlines wanted to be read. Abstract images wanted to be interpreted. Art made on-the-spot wanted to draw attention to technique. Many of Gallagher’s images featured a raven, which sits of the shoulder of the dying Cú Chulainn, in the memorial to the Easter Rising.

The double meaning of twinning was that, as in any civil war brothers, cousins, friends, schoolmates, neighbors for various reasons found themselves on opposite sides. While some thought rebellion was the only way to achieve an independent Ireland, others though enlisting in the Royal Irish Fusiliers and fighting for the British in France better supported that goal. While 500 lives were lost in the six days of the Rising (more than half of them civilians), 3,500 Irishmen were killed in the battle of the Somme in one day.

Gallagher showed photos of Ireland’s men and women on opposite sides in this conflict. Poet Francis Ledwidge from County Meath, who died in France, suggested the depth of the divide—and perhaps a sprinkle of contempt—between partisans on the two sides: “I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.”

You can see the whole thing (75 minutes) on YouTube and see for yourself.

***David and Goliath

david-and-goliath, statue, sculpture

photo: Darrel Birkett, creative commons license

By Malcolm Gladwell – The subtitle of this book, Gladwell’s fifth, is “Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.” It’s much better that he titled the book as he did, rather than “an exploration of the inverted U-shaped curve.” Gladwell uses his well-developed skill at mixing anecdote and social science research to create a fascinating series of case studies of how, out on the far edges of that curve, powerful institutions and individuals (Goliaths) with seemingly everything going for them can be undermined or bested by seemingly weaker ones (Davids).

Gladwell maintains that people consistently misjudge these kinds of conflicts, because we don’t recognize the weaknesses of Goliaths and underestimate the possibility that Davids can do the unexpected. By the end of the book, his cases demonstrate not just how those with supposed advantages can fail, but also how they can, paradoxically, end up causing these very failures.

As in his previous books—The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers—Gladwell marshals fascinating case histories to build and extend his argument bit by bit. Often these examples illustrate the wrong-headedness of conventional wisdom. An early example is the entrenched belief that smaller class sizes improve education, while a growing body of literature suggests that the number of pupils makes no difference in the mid-range (the large number of cases under the U) and that very small classes (one tail of the U) can actually be counter-productive: They are too easily dominated by one or two students and do not present sufficient variety of viewpoints.

The book’s middle section talks about people who have overcome difficulties—dyslexia, racial prejudice—and how the experience of those difficulties actually have facilitated their success. (David Boies, the ultra-successful attorney with dyslexia, had to learn to listen very very carefully and remember very very well because reading was so difficult.)

It’s hard to know what generalized conclusions can be derived from this section. Complicating the situation are an array of individual, parental, social, and other mitigating factors, which Gladwell doesn’t address. So while overcoming severe difficulties is remotely possible (many successful entrepreneurs—perhaps a third—turn out to be dyslexic, for example), his argument seems more interesting than instructive. The exception proving the rule.

Finally, Gladwell discusses the limits of power and how people who have wanted to impose order, such as hardliners among the British in Northern Ireland or supporters of three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws, actually devised policies that produced the opposite effect than that they desired. Gladwell makes a broader point here, well worth considering in light of current events: “The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.”

Gladwell is all about extending his arguments to new territory and, in that vein, reading this section, I couldn’t help thinking about the forthcoming presidential election. Will preemptory allegations about the “rigging” of the vote undermine the election’s legitimacy and, therefore, any new administration’s ability to govern?

Reading Malcolm Gladwell is like brain yoga, an opportunity to stretch your thinking. Whether he’s perfectly “right” in some of his theorizing or whether he too carefully cherrypicks his examples to prove his case, more thinking has to be a good thing in these times.

Where’s the Happy?

Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen

Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood) & Alan Rickman (Col. Brandon) in Sense & Sensibility

Novelist Carrie Brown, in an essay in the Glimmer Train bulletin this month, advocates a reassessment of the components of conflict that writers incorporate in their work. Too often, she believes, less experienced writers, especially, lean too heavily on catastrophe. They include “too much dark and not enough light,” believing only the bad stuff is dramatic.

Bad stuff happening is the meat and potatoes of the genre I read most often—mysteries and thrillers. Yet even there, excess abounds. Authors feel compelled to pile up ever more bodies, to make the manner of death ever more grisly, to include female characters who might offer a hope of happiness only to put them out of reach, often because they’re dead, to give their protagonists’ souls so many dark places to hide that after a while, I wonder, “why does this character get out of bed in the morning?” When I start rolling my eyes, the author has lost me.

Brown believes “the mystery of people inclined toward charity or kindness has a drama as compelling as a story of decline and despair.” These positive forces are as powerful and as complicated as the impulses that propel other people toward evil. Jane Austen knew this. So did Dickens.

The key to presenting happiness well, she says, is to capture its complexity and contradictions. She uses an example “weeping with happiness.” Think of Emma Thompson in the movie Sense and Sensibility, crying with great, gasping sobs (see the clip!) when she realizes that Edward Ferrars is in fact not married. We are infinitely more moved by her happy tears than if she’d simply grinned delightedly.

It is not easy for people to be happy, and it is especially not easy for them to be happy when they have been beset by all the other fictional difficulties authors throw at them. But, Brown might argue, these characters can—and should—be happy for that precise reason. She says happiness depends “on the nearby presence of unhappiness to be felt most acutely. By necessity, it seems, the happiest man will also be the man most aware of unhappiness.” Going back to Sense and Sensibility, that would be lovely Colonel Brandon.

An example from Brown’s own work is her 2013 novel The Last First Day, in which a long-married couple—the headmaster of the Derry School for Boys and his wife—must face the declining health that forces his retirement. Said Reeve Lindbergh in her review of the book for The Washington Post, “Terrible things happen and have happened. These people struggle and are hurt. . . . Nevertheless, [the author shows] one can see with clarity and with appreciation for certain glimpsed miracles in every day, whatever else the day brings.” One is capable of a kind of happiness.

The Goldmine in Your Back Yard

Alabama, water tower

photo: sunsurfr, creative commons license

The Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Glimmer Train includes an interview with Tom Franklin, conducted by Kevin Rabalais. Franklin is the award-winning author of short stories and the novels Hell at the Breech, about Alabama’s 1890s Mitcham war, Smonk, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which won a Los Angeles Times Book Award in 2010.

One of the issues they talked about was how Franklin’s upbringing in Alabama prepared him to be a writer. His response reminded me of what another Southern writer, Flannery O’Conner, famously maintained: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” And to write about, too.

Franklin developed an affinity for the physical and cultural environment of the Deep South practically by osmosis. He didn’t recognize the richness of this heritage, his attachment to it, and how it might shape his work until he moved away. Home was a place to return to in his writing because “I know what everything is called, the trees, the animals. I know it in and out, instinctively, because I’ve hunted and fished that land.”

He told the interviewer that his fellow graduate students would react to his Alabama stories by saying, “You really had a great childhood for a writer” or “I envy your material.” It was around that time, Franklin said, “I realized that, yes, I’d had a writer’s education my whole life.”

About Franklin’s most recent book, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Ron Charles in The Washington Post says, “Franklin is a master of subtle withholding, revealing lines of culpability and sympathy in this small town one crooked letter at a time.” It’s the tale of an awful crime in a small Mississippi town, but what makes the particular setting in which his characters operate so believable are the down-to-earth, day-to-day details Franklin searches out and knows in his bones. His enviable material.

Especially worth noting is that the title story in his collection, Poachers, was included in The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, and The Best American Noir of the Century. Today, he lives in that hotbed of Deep South fiction-writing, Oxford, Mississippi.

*****The Turner House

Detroit, house

photo: ddatch54, creative commons license

By Angela Flournoy – I deeply admire this book about two generations of an African American family living in Detroit. The parents moved north from Arkansas after World War II and had 13 children whose lives play out against the backdrop of drastically changing economic and social circumstances over six decades.

Newlyweds Viola and Francis Turner spent some of the early months of their marriage separated when he moved to Detroit to find work. Chapters about that era in the family history alternate with stories of the family’s present-day experiences. By and large, their children have many more choices than they did. The parents started out poor, the children are almost all firmly in the middle class.

Principal characters in the narrative are Charles Turner (Cha-Cha to the family), the eldest child, born in 1944, and patriarch of the family since his father’s death and the youngest, Lelah, born in 1967. Lelah has the most difficulties, many of which derive from a bad early marriage and her gambling addiction. She’s near-homelessness and shunned by her daughter Brianna. Cha-Cha is plagued by a haint, which has brought him in contact with a psychotherapist, a much younger African American woman to whom he’s unexpectedly attracted. These are secrets just waiting to burst out. Readers get to know several other family members reasonably well, too, especially brother Troy, the former soldier, now Detroit cop, and Cha-Cha’s wife Tina, who wonders whether her husband is slipping away.

With these two dramas bookending the family’s present-day story, Viola’s large dispersed family is coming together to celebrate her birthday, very probably her last. How they accommodate each other, buck each other up, revisit old wounds—every interaction seems exactly right. They have expectations of each other (“Turner men don’t . . .”) and a strong sense of their shared history. I marveled at Flournoy’s acutely observed assessments of the siblings and their motivations, for example: “The things we do in the name of protecting others are so often attempts to spare some part of ourselves.”

Now that Viola lives with Cha-Cha and Tina, a key issue is whether to sell the house they grew up in, in the largely abandoned heart of the city. Everyone has an opinion, but the long and the short of it is that the house is deep under water. Much more is owed on it than they could ever hope to recover in a sale. Sentimental ties seem hardly to justify the cost of keeping it, yet it will cost thousands to sell it.

You know these people. By remaining so true to its human core, The Turner House is “an engrossing and remarkably mature first novel,” said Matthew Thomas in the New York Times, who points out another of its strengths: “artful without being showy.” No wonder it was a finalist for the National Book Award! In Flournoy’s biography, we read that her father was from Detroit, and many of the tiny touches could only come from someone who knows that city well. It’s a beautiful book deserving of a wide readership.

Read an engaging BuzzFeed interview with Angela Flournoy here.