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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
What We’re Reading
Brandi Dawn Henderson (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): I sat in on our Winter Workshop in Newport recently, during which time Jon Raymond read aloud from George Saunders’ story, “Home,” from Tenth of December. He was speaking about how our social and political interests can inspire our writing, and, as I listened, I became mesmerized with the cadence of Saunders’ dialogue. I scribbled a reminder to myself to scour the bookshelves at Powell’s for a copy, and have been blown away by the stylistic range present in this collection. Each story takes on a totally different technique, so much so that it sometimes takes some orienting in the beginning to make the switch, but I was ultimately on board, by the end of each story, with the way in which he successfully pulled off so many different narrative styles. “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” made the reader in me cringe with its truncated diction but, as a writer, I couldn’t help but admire Saunders’ impressive adherence to character. The best part of the book, for me, was re-discovering “Tenth of December,” which was a story I first read in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. I often found myself thinking of the coatless man near the lake, but could not recall his greater narrative nor where I’d learned of him. It was a delight to revisit his journey so unexpectedly, and to delve more deeply into the greater works of such a masterful storyteller.
Liz Lampman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): Up until now, I shunned Stephen King novels in the same way I shunned The Goosebumps series as a kid. I can’t say why. . . maybe I thought it would be too gruesome, too “male” for my taste? Whatever the case may be, I’m glad someone talked me out of my stubborn, cold-shouldered resolve. I’m reading The Gunslinger, the first book of the Dark Tower series, and I’ve been hooked since the first sentence, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I’ve escaped into a dry and deadly world, with Roland the gunslinger as my guide. The plot is tantalizing, the characters whole, the images palpable. . . I’m afraid I have no choice. The next six books I read have been chosen for me—The Dark Tower series.
Rebekah Bergman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I recently read the three stories contained in Simone de Beauvoir’s Woman Destroyed. Each piece follows a female protagonist coming to grips with new aspects of her reality—aging, motherhood, infidelity. Having read only de Beauvoir’s nonfiction, I expected something much more didactic and heavy-handed here. I was amazed to find instead rich and accessible portrayals of inner turmoil. While de Beauvoir takes a very subtle approach to her typical themes, this was not exactly a fun read. I didn’t particularly like any of these women but I still sympathized with their situations. The second story, “The Monologue,” is written in the form of hurried run-on sentences as a passionate tirade on all the many people the narrator feels have wronged her. This was my favorite of the three pieces. The rant reads quickly and is a telling illustration of its epigraph: “The monologue is her form of revenge” (Flaubert)
Lauren Perez (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): This week’s raddest read was a translation of Margarita Karapanou’s Rien Ne Va Plus; it’s the story of a marriage and its dissolution, told twice: once with the husband as betrayer, once with the wife. The husband is a veterinarian named Alkiviadis, who is either a narcissist who makes his wife witness his multiple affairs with other men and then kills himself, or he’s an adoring, compassionate husband who desperately wants a family with his wife. Louisa is a writer who either is tortured by her controlling husband who she loves too much and eventually has to divorce him and get away, or she’s a manipulative, self destructive woman who is repulsed by, and punishes, her husband’s adoration. It both celebrates and satirizes the genres of romance and psychological horror, blurring the line between the two. As Louisa says of her own writing: “Every time I want to write, I want to write a love story. But as soon as I pick up the pen I’m overcome by horror.”
Molly Dickinson (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Imagine waking up in a room that might be a hotel room and might be a prison cell. There’s an impenetrable metal door, and a computer built into the wall that allows the only form of communication with the other inhabitants/prisoners: a chat room forum. Oh, and you have no memory of how you got there. Disoriented yet? That’s how we meet the characters of Victor Pelevin’s The Helmet of Horror, a stunning re-imagining of the classic myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Pelevin invites us into this surreal chat room forum, where the odd array of characters try to make sense of their foreign circumstances and engage in a dialogue about the cosmos, the divine, and the absolute weirdness of their situation. This is an absolute must read: it is fascinatingly formatted, filled with diverse and comical characters, and a genius re-crafting of a familiar myth.
Miles Jochem (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I keep coming back to Louise Glück’s book The Wild Iris. Simple and unassuming upon first glance, this cycle of poems contains a multitude of voices and meanings. The verses are told largely from the perspective of contemplative flowers addressing their fellow plants, the changing seasons, and the people who shape their stationary lives. Glück uses the language of botany and the tropes of vegetation to craft a series of mournful observations about love, death, and nature. Her work draws inspiration from both the ancient tradition of pastoral poetry and the splintered viewpoints of postmodern narration. The poems are like a carefully tended garden: lovely and organic, but bearing the mark of an overseer who knows precisely which parts to prune away and which to coax into maturity. Who knew plants could experience such sadness, longing, contempt, or sense of camaraderie? I will never look at a flower in the same way again.
Alison Pezanoskey-Browne (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch revolves around young protagonist Theo who visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother to view the Fabritius painting of the title, but instead becomes one of the victims in a terrorist bombing of the museum. In the aftermath of the attack, the painting comes into Theo’s possession, and the novel follows him, and the painting, into his adulthood. From New York to Las Vegas, back to New York and then to Amsterdam, each step on Theo’s journey introduces the remarkably fascinating characters he encounters. In Manhattan we meet the upper crust and dysfunctional family, the Barbours, who first take Theo in, then the eccentric recluse/furniture-restorer Hobie and his daughter-figure Pippa, who become Theo’s most stable family. In the suburbs of Las Vegas, we’re immersed in the world of Theo’s gambling crook of a father and Boris, a resourceful and darkly funny juvenile delinquent, who becomes Theo’s best friend. Unsurprisingly, Dickens, Melville, James, Conrad, Stevenson, and Dostoyevsky are Tartt’s favorite novelists, and The Goldfinch feels accordingly epic.
At its core, The Goldfinch ponders fate versus chance, moral ambiguity in the choices of truthfully rendered characters, and the ability of art to elevate humanity above the murk. Lacking a blindly optimistic conclusion, but by no means without hope, in the end in this world, no one is irredeemable. I’m only slightly embarrassed to confess that I cried while reading its final pages because it felt so true; this was the rare novel that I purposely postponed finishing because I wanted to linger in its world for a little longer.