Category Archives: Fiction Recommendations

Memo from the Book Awards

Jennifer Egan received the Pulitzer and the Los Angeles Times  Book Prize and all of the other Prizes for her remarkable novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. When she accepted the L.A. Times Book Award (pictured: David Ulin, Jennifer Egan, Brighde Mullins), she spoke about the fact that she’d write even if no one paid any attentioJennifer Egan 2 LATBP 4.29.11_2n, because she loved writing.  She reminded me of my poetry teacher saying over and over “the only thing that really matters is your relationship to your work.”  Or, as John Ashbery puts it—“He danced on the bridge for the feeling of dancing on a bridge.” Adrienne Rich has written that “you must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.”   Our  lives do depend on our ability to to make things, and to make things is an act that is audacious, difficult and necessary.

Sapphire and Influence

Last year, when poet and novelist Sapphire visited USC, we asked our

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Saphhire

students to come up with questions for her visit. The students had read Push, Sapphire’s “underground classic” that was made into the film Precious.

One of the students wrote:

“I was surprised and touched to see a quote from the Talmud in the introductory pages (of PUSH): “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.'”  I love this quote because it really almost undermines the Job-like quality of life within the book.  While Precious should curse her maker for her life, she is astoundingly resilient.  I have to assume that’s at least part of why this book is so popular.  The Talmud, while old and full of wisdom, is not oft quoted by lay persons.  Where did you come across this quote and what does it mean to you?”

I don’t know which of our MPW students wrote this question (if you read this blog post, let me know!)  but it goes to the heart of so much about writing practice, and it also speaks to the presence of 9781594203046H1-197x300influences in Sapphire’s new book, The Kid (Penguin 2011).   Precious’ journey is so much about coming into language, learning to read, to write, to articulate her experiences, and she becomes influenced not only by her teachers and classmates but also by poets such as Lucille Clifton.  The Kid’s protagonist is Abdul Jones, Precious’ child– and he inherits his mother’s love of story and of the word. His journey is harrowing…indeed The Kid makes Precious look like Anne of Green Gables.   Sapphire’s influences–the poets Ai and  Gerard Manley Hopkins,  Flannery O’Connor, Basquiat, and many others– hover above and below the surface of the text.   When I read The Kid I thought about the challenge it’ll raise for many readers, even sophisticated ones.    I also thought of John Cage’s  response to some of the questions that his compositions raised in the mind of a harmony-loving and bereft audience: “I am going toward violence rather than tenderness, hell rather than heaven, ugly rather than beautiful, impure rather than pure — because by doing these things they become transformed, and we become transformed.”

Sapphire will be reading from THE KID reading at Eso Won Books on Friday, July 22.

Cartography, Context, Debuts

I have always loved opening up a book and seeing a map.  The map’s a promise of a world, a landscape.  “Terrain determines tactics,” is one of my favorite quotes– Kenneth Burke said it, and he’s talking about context.  Place is context.
Two books by recent MPW graduates have crossed my desk in the past week, and both have to do with place. The first is a collection of short stories by TONI MARGARITA PLUMMER,  “The Bolero of Andi Rowe”  (Curbstone Books, Northwestern University Press, 2011).
When you open this award-winning first collection, there’s a  hand-drawn map of Los Angeles and its environs– the San Gabriel Mountains looking as mystical as the mountains that the Fellowship of the Ring charts.  Underneath the San Gabriel mountains is a webby network of freeways– the 210, the 10, the 605, the 5, the 110.
“Inez Suarez didn’t have a man…No, what Inez Suarez had was Los Angeles,” notes the narrator in “All the Sex is West,” the third story in the collection. It’s an impressive debut, with a blurb from Sandra Cisneros on the cover  (see below)
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The other book is a collection of poems by BRIAN McGACKIN, entitled “Broetry”   (Quirk Books, 2011).  This first collection of poems has some riffs on canonical poems– nods to William Carlos Williams (see cover, below) as well as Frost et al.  But there are homages and contemplations of Los Angeles, as in this poem, “The Clown Outside the Furniture Store” which catalogues a list of neighborhood characters including:
The guy twirling a Little Caesar’s Pizza
sign on the corner of Lankershim and
Vineland. Two of the five homeless dudes who
hang out under the overpass….
….
My Jiffy Lube guy. Jessica Alba.
All actors. This town is ridiculous.”
…..
So add two MPW graduate takes on Los Angeles qua Los Angeles.
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