Friday, May 16, 2008

Choosing a winner

Chicago is a stalwart city. Still new and raw on the grand time scale of human civilization, it nonetheless holds fast to its traditions, when it isn't tearing down glorious old buildings. Called, in its early, hopeful days, Paris of the Prairies, Chicago has been proud of its artists and art institutions, including the The Society for Midland Authors. This heartland writers group was founded in 1915 by the likes of Clarence Darrow, Edna Ferber, Vachel Lindsay, and Harriet Monroe, and early members included Jane Addams, Ring Lardner, and Edgar Lee Masters.

The Society for Midlands authors continues to thrive as it nears its century mark, and each year it marks the vitality of Midwest literature with literary awards and a fancy awards banquet. I was pressed into service as one of this year's three fiction judges, along with the always mischievous and passionately literary Mark Eleveld and Billy Lombardo. We were deluged with novels and short story collections and quite dizzy over this bounty. But we thrashed our way through and came up with three finalists:

Benjamin Percy. Refresh, Refresh. Graywolf.
Tony Romano, When the World Was Young. HarperCollins.
Brock Clarke. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Algonquin.

And the winner, from Kansas City, a town that holds a special place in my heart:

Matthew Eck. The Farther Shore. Milkweed Editions.

Congratulations, Matthew! And thanks for coming to Chicago to celebrate with us.

Here's what Booklist had to say:

September 1, 2007
**Starred Review**
The Farther Shore. By Matthew Eck. Oct. 2007. 192p. Milkweed, hardcover, $22 (1-57131-057-6).

Three American soldiers are stranded in a war-blasted desert city in Africa. The heat, the sand, the impenetrable darkness are all exacting a toll. The enemy is everyone and anyone, even your comrades. The mission is vague, preposterous. The people are starving, desperate, and violent, tyrannized by warlords and clan loyalty. Packs of emaciated dogs roam through smoking ruins. All is obscured by haze, dust, and fear. Josh, a good boy from Wichita, Kansas, struggles to stay rational, vigilant, honorable. Santiago, their lieutenant, tells him, “Stop thinking so much.” Their situation goes from bad to worse to all-out nightmare as they barely escape the city and set out for the sea. Every word in Eck’s first novel is as solid as a stone. Every moment of crisis feels authentic in its terror and tragedy; indeed, Eck served as a soldier in Somalia at age 18. Heir to Hemingway, and damn near as powerful as Cormac McCarthy in The Road (2006), Eck has created a contemporary version of The Red Badge of Courage in this tale of one young man’s trial by fire in the pandemonium of war in an age of high-tech weaponry and low-grade morality.— Donna Seaman

Saturday, May 10, 2008

In Praise of Good Mothers

Our Mother's Day broadcast on WLUW will feature an interview with Elizabeth Berg, a writer of great spirit and generosity. Elizabeth, a mother and a grandmother, writes with great insight and wit about women's lives, and about marriage and family, so we were thrilled to speak with her at this particular time. And I want to say Happy Mother's Day to my amazing and wonderful mother, my marvelous mother-in-law, and all the terrific mothers I count among my relatives and friends. No work is more important, difficult, and giving than nurturing the young, and standing by your children long after those delirious early years. Love, love, love.

Elizabeth's new book is a collection of short stories as perfectly crafted as they are emotionally and socially authentic: The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation. Berg exemplifies the writer as storyteller and artist, as close listener and keen observer, as empath and charmer. Berg seeks and finds connection with readers, writing clear and embracing prose about so-called ordinary lives with profound respect and joy. She's funny, frank, unafraid to be tender, and a natural and compelling conversationalist. Free of pretension, full of feeling, bemused and benevolent. Smart as can be. Beautiful.

Elizabeth Berg had wonderful things to say, but, alas, we were working without a studio and could do nothing to diminish the roar of the ceiling vents in our borrowed conference room. It was like being on a jet plane. Hopefully once we post the interview, you won't mind joining us as we fly to the land of reading and writing, of fiction and truth. All of us who love to read and write, who love quiet time to think and daydream, are always battling against a million distractions, a cacophony of machine noise, and endless interruptions. The space for stillness and thoughtfulness is always shrinking. But we persist.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Read this novel.

The Sorrows of an American. By Siri Hustvedt.

Siri Hustvedt’s intricate and heightened novels cast a spell not only because Hustvedt is exceptionally observant and writes beautifully, or because her alluring characters are smart, sensitive, and accomplished, or because her stories are significantly complex, but rather because she perceives life’s hidden dimensions, the dark force of secrets, and the radioactivity of trauma. Preternaturally attuned to the vagaries of memory and the dangerous revelations embedded in dreams and delusions, she writes of psychological mysteries and maladies with emotional veracity and intellectual specificity. Her previous novel of family tragedy, the ravishing What I Loved (2003), featured New York artists and scholars. She returns to this milieu, even bringing along a character, art historian Leo Hertzberg, and deepens her inquiry into its spirit in this even more fluent and mesmerizing tale.

By narrating from the point of view of a psychiatrist, Erik Davidson, Hustvedt brings a professional perspective to besieged minds, although Erik’s knowledge isn’t helping all that much as he struggles for equilibrium in the wake of his divorce and his father’s death. Add to that his immersion in his father’s startlingly evocative memoir (based on a real-life source, as Hustvedt discloses in her Acknowledgements, evidence that Hustvedt’s writing skills are bred in the bone) about his poor, suffering immigrant family’s bruising hardscrabble life in unforgiving Minnesota and his scarring military service in World War II. Erik’s understanding of his past is greatly altered, and he is forced to recognize that a sensitive family mystery must be solved.

Erik’s sister, writer Inga, is even more reluctant to delve into the past. Not only is she mourning their father, she is also grieving for her late husband, a celebrity-famous novelist, a loss made all the more tortuous as a manipulative biographer and a vicious journalist root out painful truths.

Yet another unexpected set of concentric circles of pain and confusion ripple out from Erik’s involvement with his possibly endangered downstairs tenants: Miranda, a Jamaican-born artist he helplessly desires, and her young live-wire daughter, Eglantine. Like the great nineteenth-century novelists who combined riveting storytelling with incisive philosophical musings, Hustvedt has created intellectual and compassionate characters and a bewitchingly brilliant plot to explore the great chasms of human life. The Sorrows of an American illuminates with grace and insight the legacy of sorrows born of the struggles of immigrants, and the psychic wounds of war, betrayal, and unrequited love.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

In Praise of Literary Heroism

The Shadow Factory by Paul West.

“Can you think without words?” Paul West, a playful, prolific, and erudite master writer, was forced to contemplate this paradox in the wake of a massive stroke. The author of many remarkable and diverse novels, including The Immensity of the Here and Now, Cheops, and Terrestrials, and a string of vivid memoirs, West was already hospitalized for a drastic kidney infection when he was struck down and hurled into the void of global aphasia. His right arm was paralyzed. He could barely swallow. He could not speak. After months of heroic effort, he uttered his first complete sentence, “I speak good coffee.” His doctors were adamant: he would never write again. But over the years, West has overcome adversity in many forms. Persistent, ardent, witty, life-loving, deeply curious, and aided and abetted by his indefatigable, brilliant, and loving wife, the writer Diane Ackerman, he proved the good doctors wrong, regaining his great facility with language, and writing this astonishing work, the first aphasic memoir. A dispatch from the “shadow factory” of an abruptly silenced inner realm in which a radiant mind struggles to burn through dark matter.

West was determined “to be as sentient an observer as possible” even in this frightening, wordless state, and so he was. And in this philosophical, positive, and dream-like chronicle, a work that booms like Shakespeare and clicks like Beckett, West describes the lightning strike that changed everything, the voices he heard, and the slight alterations in sensation that gave him hope. As he ponders the nature of muteness, the solace of reason, and the maddening gap between thought and speech, he does not dwell on the fear, anger, and “silent frustration” engendered by his ordeal, but instead discerns an eerie beauty in his journey from the dim “languageless wasteland” into the full sun of life and the music of words, glorious words. “We live, most of us, in a world of dumb recalcitrance, saved occasionally by inspired seers.” West is just such a being. We all benefit from his valor and artistry. Watch for his next novel.