Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review: The Inheritance of Loss

I have read books that sacrifice plot for character or character for plot, but this is the first book I've ever read that sacrifices both for setting. Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss is beautifully written, full of vivid descriptions from the Himalayas to the streets of New York City. To say it moves slowly would be generous,. The story doesn't really start until the last fifty pages or so. The only character I had any fondness for was the dog and there's no resolution to her story.

I only purchased this book because it won the Man Booker Prize in 2006. I only finished it because of a Goodreads review that said it had one of the best endings she'd ever read. I am boggled on both points. Basically, this author spent 350 pages meticulously describing an empty room.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sex in Literary Fiction 4

Here's my last example for this discussion:

"Have you been good?" she asked me.
I nodded. This would help. "I've been very good," I answered chastely.
She smiled and shrugged out of her utilitarian underwear. For some reason, when making love to my wife, I liked to retreat to a little boy persona and often came within ten seconds whenever she started cooing that I was a "good boy." "Good boy," she would whisper, as I thrust and pumped on top of her (or behind her, or underneath; Elaine was as cheerful as a cheerleader about assuming whatever position I wanted). 'Good boy," she would murmur into my hair. "Good boy." And she would sigh and draw a finger down my back.
"I want to be a good boy, I want to be a good boy. Which was true, which was all I'd ever wanted.
"Help me to be good," I would beg her. "Please, please, help me-" And then blast; it was over.
But tonight, after she'd sat astride me for all of five minutes, I considered attempting to fake it- did she really have to know?- and then to my surprise I sputtered out a small orgasm; satisfied, my wife climbed off me. She and I made love like the sexual revolution had never happened; my satisfaction supported her sense of herself as a woman, and even if only one of us came (that would be me), we could usually both go to sleep content. 
That's a scene from Laura Grodstein's A Friend of the Family. I'm impressed that a woman can so believably write this scene as a male narrator. I think this scene is great for the added dimension it gives of this control-freak narrator and the submissive dynamic he plays in bed which is the opposite of how his relationship with his wife plays out through the rest of the book. It's telling too, that his wife gets reassurance from his climax and neither one of them is concerned about hers. This is reflective of his character, and foreboding for their marriage.

The thing about each of these scenes that separates them from erotica is that they're not designed to titillate. It's fine if they do, but that isn't their purpose. Whatever graphic details exist are there for believability. These scenes give us a deeper understanding of who these characters are, and when a novel's main focus is the romantic relationship between two people, the sex is an essential part.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sex in Literary Fiction 3

This topic has become a series, I guess. I wanted to include a female narrator. Here's a passage from Sue Miller's The Senator's Wife:

"Upstairs they stand on opposite sides of the bed and move quickly out of their clothes. Meri crawls across the coverlet to Nathan. She lies down on her side, looking up at him, opening her knees as he reaches for her.
The air from the open window is cool, but Nathan's body is warm, he radiates heat. He's hard, and she reaches down to help him, to shift him into place. She feels a kind of relief as he enters her. This is what she wants. This is the way she feels honest with him, safe. Here, she thinks. Yes. As he begins to move in her, she whispers it: "Yes. Yes!"
They make love quickly, fueled by his urgency, and when he comes, Nathan cries out so loudly that Meri can imagine someone on the sidewalk below stopping, listening under the darkening trees." 
This time we have a couple of newlyweds and despite the somewhat titillating language, there's so much more than sex here. It's such a great example of the advice every writer has drilled into them: "SHOW; don't tell." It could take pages for Miller to tell us what she has in just three paragraphs. Coupled with the revelation from a few pages before, that Meri thinks they're an unlikely pair that ended up together because of the sex, this scene provides something necessary. To leave it out, or "fade to black", would be a cop out.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sex in Literary Fiction 2

In my last blog, I promised an example of a sex scene from a literary novel that I think is done well. Here's an excerpt from Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall:
"He puts his lips to her left nipple, flicks it with his tongue. She murmurs. It's become singular, his mouth on her breast and her response to it, the exhaled murmur, the miniature seizure he can feel along her body, as if she can't quite believe that this, this, is happening again. He has a hard-on now. He can't always tell, he doesn't really care, when he's excited on his own and when he's excited because she is. She clutches his back, she can't reach his ass anymore, he loves it that she likes his ass. He circles her stiffening nipple with his tongue-tip, taps the other one lightly with a finger. Tonight it will be mainly about getting her off. This often happens, has for years--it reveals its form, on any given night (when did they last fuck anyplace but at night, in bed?), usually decided up front, by who kisses whom. This one's for her, then. That's the sexiness of it."
The scene goes on. It's actually about three pages towards the very beginning of the story and I think it does a great job of establishing who these characters are and their relationship to each other. There is a routine to their passion, but you the sense that the intimacy is no less enjoyable for the familiarity. It will be important later for the reader to understand the intricacies of this long-married couple's love for one another and Cunningham has found a way to encapsulate it in three pages, right from the beginning. I think he manages to be graphic without being gratuitous.

But that's just my opinion. What do you think?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sex in Literary Fiction

I recently read an article about how difficult it is to find quality sex scenes depicted in literary fiction. The argument is that the absence feels pretty conspicuous in a genre that prides itself on laying bare the internal mysteries of character. The author of the article suggests the lack may come down to simple embarrassment, in light of things like the annual Bad Sex Review, run by Britain's Literary Review.

As a writer myself, I'd say there are two main concerns when writing sex into my story. The first is: What will my family and friends think? As much as sex is a big part of human experience, it still doesn't get discussed in realistic terms even in some of our closest relationships. This is what makes it such great territory for a writer to reveal intimate parts of their character's nature, but it remains taboo. When I sent my dad a copy of my first novel, Monsoon Season, I blacked out all the naughty bits and in the margin I wrote: "REDACTED."

The second major concern for writers including sex in our books is: Is it gratuitous? We've all heard that "sex sells" and we don't want to be seen as using sex to transform an otherwise uninteresting story into a page-turner. Frankly, many of us don't want our work dismissed as a Fifty Shades knock off when we're trying to write something of literary value. But the "fade to black" approach can feel a bit cowardly.

It's a tricky balance. I notice when it's done well and think Michael Cunningham, Sue Miller and Lauren Grodstein get it right. Perhaps I will locate some of their well-written passages for my next blog.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: Losing Charlotte

In Losing Charlotte, a family deals with the sudden loss of the eldest daughter after she has given birth to twins. In the months that follow, the family tries to adjust. The typically unshakeable father takes to bed, the mother begins planning an elaborate memorial that seems to mark Charlotte's childhood, and the younger sister travels from Kentucky to NYC to help  her brother-in-law care for newborns.

Younger sister, Knox, finds herself plunged into a domestic life she has tried hard to avoid. She suspects her actions are out of guilt, for not being a "good sister." As Knox wrestles with what that means, we get glimpses of their complicated relationship- simultaneously passionately close and, at times, frustratingly distant. Knox tries to understand who her sister was and what she'd thought of their relationship. At the same time, she's trying to figure out who she will become without her sister to measure herself against.

This story does not gloss over grief and end with a tidy, happy resolution. There is truth here and the pain is palpable. You get the sense that these are real people who will deal with the reality of this loss for the rest of their lives.

In an author interview, Heather Clay says she is inspired by: "Anything about that family ache, about what’s unsaid, misunderstood, the simple and tragic passage of time... " That's what she gives her readers with this book.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Recipe: Pad See Ew

Years ago in New Hampshire, my friend Kim introduced me to Thai food. I fell in love with something they just called "Pan Fried Noodles" and when the restaurant went out of business, it took me years to locate the dish that was the equivalent in other Thai restaurants: Pad See Ew.

It's really tricky to recreate this delicious recipe in you own kitchen because the "dark soy sauce" isn't typically sold in American grocery stores. You need to go to an Asian market and find some "Kecap Manis", which is the key to the special sweet flavor of Pad See Ew.

I went to Lee Lee's International Supermarket. I read that "light soy sauce" is just the same as the regular soy sauce that's easily found at your local Safeway, but I wasn't taking any chances and picked up some of that as well. Google turned up a bunch of recipes, each slightly different. This is the one I used:

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book Review: String Bridge

Jessica Bell's novel String Bridge tells the story of Melody, who gave up her life as a musician when she had her daughter with her music promoter husband. At first, it hadn't even felt like a sacrifice, but as Tessa turns three, Melody begins to feel like she has lost an essential part of her identity. The dual role of wife and mother is no longer feeling enough.

Add to that doubts about her husband's fidelity and job stress and you have the recipe for an unhappy life. And Melody can't trust her emotions because she's worried that she may have inherited bipolar disorder from her mother who was diagnosed at around the same age.

Bell does a good job describing Melody's conflicting emotions and her memories of a difficult childhood with a mentally ill parent. There are some tangents here and the ending seemed unnecessarily dramatic, but it's a compelling story that may resonate with women trying to define themselves beyond motherhood.