Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Submission, Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman’s The Submission is the most exciting piece of fiction I have read in some time. It is engrossing, thought-provoking, and is as finely written as it is intricately plotted. By asking what would happen if a Muslim was anomalously picked to design a Ground Zero-type of memorial (the novel is vague in its reference of the attacks of 9/11) and then exploring the hysterical fallout of that decision, Waldman is able to delicately balance social satire with a tragic, almost poetic eloquence.

Waldman begins her novel in the Governor’s mansion, as a selected group of historians, artists, and political aides debate the merits of two memorials, narrowed down from the thousands that have been submitted. The group is narrowly divided over two selections: One is a dark sculpture named the Void, which breaks out of the ground, reminding the viewer of the horror of the day by creating a “great gash against the sky.” The other is a walled garden, symmetrical in its design, and lined with metal trees, each of which are made from the ruins of the site. Both memorials have their supporters. The group, however, selects the garden, based largely on the urgings of Claire Harwell, a widow whose husband was killed in the attacks. Claire’s passionate defense of the garden, which begins as a yearning for peace from the horrific grief of her loss, starts out unwavering, even in the face of strong opposition. She soon begins to question her own decision and personal convictions, however, when it is revealed that a man with the name of “Mohammad” submitted the chosen design.

“Jesus Fucking Christ! It’s a goddamn Muslim!” is the cry from one juror upon hearing the name.

The ripples of this decision animate the novel. Waldman sets up nearly a dozen separate characters and follows them as they grapple, debate, fight and question their beliefs over the memorials selection. Some of those, such as Sean Gallagher, who lost a brother in the attack, vehemently oppose the memorial. Sean uses the opportunity to publically express his outrage, going as far as pulling a headscarf off of a Muslim woman in protest, setting off a disturbing wave of bigoted violence across the nation. The memorial’s supporters, such Asma, another widow whose religious beliefs (she is a Muslim) and illegal status (she if from Bangladesh) keeps her silent surrounding over the memorial, question how to fight the discrimination the design provokes.

Amongst all of the yelling, fighting, and violence over the project, it is the memorial’s designer, Mohammad Kahn, whose narrative becomes the most potent. Khan refuses to disclose his inspiration for the design in an effort to keep the focus on his art, as well as in defiance over his unfair treatment. That the reader is able to understand both his stubborn anger and his bitterness over the controversy is a testament to Waldman’s great talent at characterization. It is easy to sympathize for Khan, even as he grows increasingly unlikable to all the characters in the book.

Reading The Submission, it is impossible to not to be reminded of the uproar over the recently proposed “Ground Zero Mosque,” a scandal that flooded the news and divided much of the country last fall. The novel, written well before that fracas began, is eerily prescient, if not entirely unsurprising, in foretelling the uproar that took over the country. Perhaps because of this, The Submission is a novel that needs be read now: Not just because its theme of the destructive nature of widespread and mass Islamophobia is so important that it needs immediate attention, but because timeliness of the novel’s subject matter might soon become unrecognizable. Even though this feels like a flaw to the novel’s ability to stand the test of time, it should not deter readers from picking it up. Now needs to be examined as much as yesterday or tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Blog Bet

My dear friend Petya, who runs the stunning "The Migrant Book Club," recently posed a bet to me, inspired by the Nanowrimo contest: Starting November 1, we must blog each blog once a day for a full month. The loser, that is the one who ends up with the least posts at the end of the month, owes the winner a nice bottle of red. The winner not only gets the satisfaction of the win, but pushes their blogging talent into the stratosphere. I was excited about the challenge, and ready to get this little blog off the ground and make it something worthwhile. Reading is one of my great passions, and to be able to connect with others about the books I love and why I love them is true bliss to me. On November 1st, after publishing my first entry in the contest, I knew was going to beat her (much more) successful blog, not only in amount of posts, but in sheer awesomeness. This was going to be my chance to make it real. And then came November 2nd, and November 3rd, and a double at school and the restaurant; and then came the promises to myself that I would make up the missed entries with daily double posts that would showcase not only my talent, but my brilliance and follow through. Needless to say, I have not done that. Petya, dear reader, I give you the crown, and you can expect your bottle after Thanksgiving. I don't think I have a daily entry in me. (Hold the jokes please.) I was starting to think about blogging about any old thing that came to my mind, and really, who wants to read about my dogs? But what I do have is something a little less intense. I am going to make it my goal, starting with this entry and lasting until Jan. 1, to post twice a week. I will try to make them meaningful, substantial, and give it my best. Hold me to my word. Tell a friend if you like what I have. Join me on Jan. 9 to chat about "The Marriage Plot." And let me know what you are reading.

Let's Talk "The Marriage Plot": Jan. 9, 7pm

So, "The Art of Fielding" chat has come and gone, and for a first attempt, it was enough fun that I want to try it again. (I must admit that I had dental surgery earlier that day and was not at my best; the irony that I equate my lack of typing my thoughts that night to my mouth being in pain is not lost on this English teacher.) This time, let's chat about Jeffery Eugenides' latest, "The Marriage Plot." I'm giving you until January 9 to get the novel read, which should be more than enough time to devour the novel. If the first 20 pages are any indication, it should a be great discussion. Last night, sitting among close friends over a glass (or six) of wine, I actually wished for a brief second I was at home, curled up in bed reading it. So, dust off your English Lit. notes, brush up on your favorite Semiotician, and be here at 7pm. I promise not to visit the dentist before we get started!

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Art of Fielding Live Chat

Friday, November 4, 2011

On Deck

At any given time, I am usually reading one book with three or more sitting on my shelf waiting to be read next. Trying to tidy up the house yesterday, I realized I have more than just a few books lying around that I have not read. In fact, the amount of books I have purchased lately but have not read is slightly overwhelming. In no particular order, here is what I have to choose from next:

Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean
1Q84, Haruki Murakami
The Marriage Plot, Jeffery Eugenides
Believing is Seeing, Errol Morris
Zone One, Colson Whitehead
The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson
C, Tom McCarthy
The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
Elia Kazan, Richard Schickel
The Steal, Rachel Shteir
The Wild Things, Dave Eggers

I will probably go with the Eugenides next, then Murakami. Until I finish at least 3 of these, I am not allowing myself anymore purchases.

(Don't believe the above statement!)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns

As a reader, we crave those moments when, after losing ourselves in the first frantic pages of a book or novel, we know, just know, that the book we are reading was made just for us, that there is no other purpose in our lives but to read this book, and everything, family, jobs, responsibilities, eating, will have to wait. To be so completely engulfed in a book, to lose oneself, as they say, in a work so meaningful and profound and magical is the ultimate goal of any reader. Once you experience that high, find that grace, become so completely dependent on a book that you have the need to carry it with you everywhere you go just to feel its presence with you in case there is the off chance you can slip back into its pages, even for a few minutes, you cannot go back to casual reading. And every book you read after that perfect work is compared to that one time, no matter its subject matter or style. Great books can seem callow and weak when followed by ones you loved. You almost go into mourning when a book so dear to you comes to a close, but you don’t stop reading just because you think you might have reached a pinnacle. You keep reading, hoping to feel that high again, all the while telling everyone you know exactly what they MUST BE READING, and hoping, hoping, hoping something as great will come along soon.

I can be honest in saying that this happens to me once every two or three years. It happened with White Teeth, The Corrections, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; I experienced it several years ago with Let the Great World Spin, and on a glorious full-day devouring of The Road. Last year I got there twice with Egan and Franzen, a super double triumph that left me thinking it would be several more years before I could feel it again. And while there have been some brief affairs recently, such as Lark and Termite, The Submission, and Super Sad True Love Story, nothing has given me that true passion you can only experience with a great book.

I started this blog because of that passion, the desire to share with everyone I know (and those I don’t know) what books sweep me away, what books make me crazy with excitement as a reader. I am slightly hesitant to say this because I am only 100 pages into this one, but I want to do nothing more with my day but read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. This lyrical piece of narrative non-fiction is as fine as anything I have ever read. Wilkerson’s work is about what she calls “The Great Migration,” the exodus of millions of African Americans from the South following the Civil War, and corresponding with the start of Jim Crow. Wilkerson follows three former southerners as they leave all they know to find a better life. It is gorgeous, heartbreaking, and one that I don’t want to leave, even for a minute. Calling it extraordinary is not hyperbole. Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, writes with such precision and lyrical beauty that one could mistake The Warmth of Other Suns for a work of fiction. Topics such as Jim Crow and share-cropping, which have been thoroughly explored in other texts and history classes, seem revelatory in Wilkerson’s hands. Wilkerson is especially skilled at painting the true horror of what she calls “the Southern caste system,” which keeps whites in charge and African Americans constantly scrambling to understand the rules they are not only forced to live by, but could cost them their lives for single misunderstanding. She illuminates so much of our shared history to such a degree that one could easily begin to question their education and knowledge of the world. The work is painful to read, but never maudlin. Reading The Warmth of Other Suns is like experiencing a strange new country, one with a people and history that is desperate to reveal itself for all to see, and one we need to know. I can think of no greater exhortation of this work other than to plead, “Read this now!”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


It is National Novel Writing Month, according to this site anyway. The goal is simple: Use the month of November to write that great novel you have been contemplating all your life, but just haven't found the time to complete. Write everyday, get at least 50,000 words, and you will win the prize, the prize being included on the wall of the site, and a rough draft on your hard drive. It sounds so simple, so easy. It seems anyone can do it! Hell, for 2o minutes today I contemplated giving it a shot. Several years ago, in a fit of creative gusto, I started my masterpiece, pounding away page after page, hoping to get something that could stick. It was a great time, and for a while, it felt I was going to finish. I actually got about 120 pages down, diligently working to what I thought was going to be a grand masterpiece. And then I stopped. Why did I go to all the trouble and abandon something I was so passionate about? The answer was simple: the work sucked. It was cliche ridden, sentimental, and poorly executed. I knew nothing about fiction writing except how to read and enjoy it. My vocabulary was limited. My phrasing was embarrassing at best. But most importantly, I didn't have the patience to actually draw my characters in a way that was anyway believable. I jumped over the details to get to the big stuff, and then flew through the big stuff to move onto the next chapter. Writing is a craft that takes time, skill, and an acute attention to the details that make a life interesting. It can't all be plot and drama. The small moments are more telling than the pivotal ones, and thankfully I realized it was not for me. (I eventually realized that if I have anything in me, it is a screenplay.) So I wonder, here at the beginning of November, if it is truly worthwhile to race the days to produce something called a novel? Can this actually be done, and if so, can it really be readable? Because that is the final goal, something people actually want to sit down and enjoy. I would think a better choice would be a novel in a year. That seems to me to be an accomplishment: completing something that isn't over before the next payday, but one that truly tests your skills and fortitude. I have heard many writers say they don't trust authors who publish a new work each year, and, having read endless amounts of Stephen King as a teen, I think I agree. But perhaps Nanowrimo will get someone who might never have given it a try that inspiration to create a masterpiece. I applaud the idea, if not the product.