Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Contests - The Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting

People often ask me, “Gabrielle, you’ve worked in the film industry. What do you think of screenwriting contests?”

This isn’t a question with an easy answer. Many screenwriting contests are run by dubious persons, with no connections to Hollywood and no benefits to the winners. However, there are several screenwriting contests that any aspiring writer really should consider entering.

I’m making the assumption that most aspiring screenwriters really want a career in the film industry, and that they want to spend their days (and sometimes their nights) working on scripts for movies. If you’re one of these writers and you choose the right contest to enter and enter a really stellar screenplay, one geared toward the kind of material the competition is look for, you just might be able to say, “Hey, guess what? I work in the movies!”

Of course most aspiring screenwriters know the premier screenwriting contest/fellowship is the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, which is run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This fellowship, which opens for entries in January and closes on May 1st, focuses on developing the winning writer’s talents and bringing his or her skill level up to professional level. It’s also the fellowship, contest, and competition that attracts the most attention of producers, agents, and studios.

The Nicholl Fellowship was founded by Don and Gee Nicholl. Don, remembering the struggles he had to endure before he “made it big” as co-creator of “The Jeffersons” and “Threes Company” wanted to do something to try to help good, deserving, aspiring writers and make their journey a little easier. To that end, the winner of the Nicholl Fellowship receives $30,000, with payments spread out over one year and given in increments of $6,000. The Nicholl Fellowship does not require its winner to live in California or even to relocate to California. Screenplays from all over the world, in any genre, are accepted, however they must be original work and be written in English. Working writers can enter, but they must not have been paid more than $5,000 previously for any screenplay work. The Nicholl Fellowship is about launching the careers of good writers, not for promoting the careers of those already working.

Thirty thousand dollars is going to sound pretty attractive to most of us, but the real value of being a Nicholl winner lies in the boost it gives the winner’s career. Some of the fellowship's more prominent winners include: Allison Anders, Jeffrey Eugenides (author of “The Virgin Suicides”), Susannah Grant (who went on to write “Erin Brokovich”), Andrew W. Marlowe (“Air Force One”), Ehren Kruger (“Scream 3,” “The Ring”), and many, many more.

As previously stated, the Nicholl Fellowship is open for entries between January 1st and May 1st of each year. Winners are usually announced in October or November. Entries must be made online and judging is “blind,” meaning that the readers will not know the name or location of the writer of the screenplays they are reading. The Nicholl Fellowship does ask its readers to state their genre preference and they make every effort to give readers screenplays in the genres they enjoy. For example, I greatly enjoy (and write) romantic comedies, dramas and period pieces. If I were a reader for the Nicholl Fellowship, they would try to give me only screenplays within those genres and avoid giving me horror, fantasy and science fiction, three genres I really don’t like very well.

The Nicholl Fellowship, besides it’s $30,000 in prize money, its great track record of opening doors (many winners, and even quarter- and semi-finalists, find their phones ringing off the hook with requests to read their screenplays), has the best record of winning screenplays actually being made into movies. At the end of 2006, thirteen of eighty-six fellowship scripts had been produced. (Just because a screenplay is purchased is no guarantee that it will ever be made into an actual movie, and beginning writers should be aware that spec scripts are almost never made into movies.)

Some people have unfairly accused the Nicholl of being slanted toward Californians. This isn’t true, though it is true that more people living in California have won than those living in other states. When the Nicholl was first launched, only California film students were eligible. Now, even though acceptance has broadened to include anyone writing original work in English, many Americans who want to work in the film industry have relocated to California in order to give their would be career its very best shot.

Don’t enter the Nicholl for the prize money alone. If you live in California or are thinking or relocating to California, you know $30,000 isn’t going to get you very far, and while the Nicholl does not prohibit it’s winners from seeking additional employment, it discourages it because the purpose of the prize money is to free writers from financial worries for one year so they can devote all their time to writing. And be warned: you will be required to produce a full length, polished screenplay during the year after your Nicholl win. They aren’t paying you $30,000 to sit around and look pretty.

If you’re a good writer and you want to enter a screenplay competition, and if you’re only going to pick one or two to enter, make sure one is the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Review - Tinkers by Paul Harding


I usually dislike it when a book is described by someone as being “difficult.” As long as we’re proficient in the language the book is written in, no book should be “difficult” for the careful and attentive reader. Or so I thought. Paul Harding’s surprise Pulitzer Prize winner, Tinkers, needs a little time and more than one reading to understand the depth of its many layers. Tinkers weighs in at fewer than 200 pages, yet its prose is so dense and detailed that by the time we’ve finished (often at a single sitting) we feel as though we’ve read a 1,000 page family saga.

Tinkers opens as George Washington Crosby, an eighty-year-old member of a long line of New Englanders, lies only eight days from death due to renal failure, “on a rented hospital bed, placed in the center of his living room.” As George, who recognizes that he’s surrounded by family and friends, begins to hallucinate and weave between consciousness and unconsciousness, Harding begins to weave the strands of his book, telling us the story, not only of George, but of Howard, George’s father, and even Howard’s father, George’s grandfather. These three men will each take turns narrating the book, though Harding’s narrative is far from linear. George’s memory wanders back seventy years, to 1927, then it pulls itself to the present again, then wanders back once more.

In a way, all three of the Crosby men were tinkers. When George’s grandfather’s mental acuity began to fade, he began to tinker with lives, telling his parishioners that really, the devil might not be “all that bad” after all. George had been a clock repairman, and he was fascinated with the gears and tumblers that caused them to tick and chime, just as life ticks away – little by little – each day. It was George’s father, Howard, however, who was the true tinker, traveling the countryside of rural Maine in his wagon, drawn by his ancient mule, Prince Edward, selling pots and pans, needles and thread, buckets and thimbles. Howard can “shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man’s hair.” But just as George, near death, envisions his world breaking apart and hallucinates his house and the sky and the stars falling in on him, Howard’s world, too, breaks apart, not in death, but in grand mal epileptic seizures so frightening and terrible that after a particularly bad one that occurred on Christmas day, Howard’s wife, Katherine, makes the decision to commit him to a mental asylum.

Howard’s story is the most in the way of plot that Tinkers offers. Rather than being a “story,” Tinkers is a meditation, an exploration of time, of memory, and what it means to live and die.

For me, the book was more about Howard than about George, and I was initially disappointed in that. Harding’s opening paragraph, which centers around George, is just so mesmerizing and so compelling that I immediately wanted “more George” and couldn’t help but feel a little dismayed when the narrative didn’t linger, but immediately dove back to 1927 and Howard. Still, when all is said and done, I found Howard to be the most interesting character in the book, though I liked all three Crosby men and found I could sympathize with each.

While Howard’s wife may have defined her husband by his epilepsy and the surrounding countryside may have defined Howard by his trade, Howard, himself seems to be defined by his poeticism and his extraordinary love for nature. While all of Tinkers is gorgeously written, I think Harding’s best writing occurs in Howard’s sections. The following is one of my favorite passages. It’s spring and Howard has just fed Prince Edward a carrot before wading into a field of wildflowers:

Howard closed his eyes and inhaled. He smelled cold water and cold, intrepid green. Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green.

In the fall, Howard is transfixed by Maine’s “blazing maple leaves.” And in the winter, he visits an old hermit who lives deep in the snowbound Maine woods. As the hermit emerges from the forest to meet Howard, Howard thinks about the blur that exists between humanity and wildness:

No one could imagine how a man could survive one winter alone and exposed in the woods, never mind decades of them. Howard, instead of trying to explain the hermit’s existence in terms of hearth fires and trappers’ shacks, preferred the blank space the old man actually seemed to inhabit; he liked to think of some fold in the woods, some seam that only the hermit could sense and slip into, where the ice and snow, where the frozen forest itself, would accept him and he would no longer need fire or wool blankets, but instead flourish wreathed in snow, spun in frost, with limbs like cold wood and blood like frigid sap.

With musings like these, we wonder if Howard is so acutely aware of nature because of his epilepsy, which is preceded by a lightning like aura, or if he is simply a dreamer, a philosopher, a thinker and a tinker. Howard doesn’t remember any of his seizures, of course, but he is terribly aware of the aura that precedes them, so much so that he sometimes wonders what it’s like to be “full of lightning.” To be “split open from the inside by lightning.” He tells us that when the bolt of lightning that was epilepsy touched his flesh, “he became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different perspective.” Whichever, it’s clear that Howard experiences the world – and life – in way most of us never do.

While many people see the theme of Tinkers as memory or death or a meditation on the time allotted to us here on earth, I think Harding was exploring the idea that nothing – not even inanimate objects – ever really dies. We, and everything else on earth, are simply transformed, much as Howard is transformed by his seizures. This theme of reabsorption seems to be highlighted, not only by Howard’s experience of epilepsy, but by his feelings regarding two ancient Native Americans who appear and disappear to repair a birch bark or chase salmon in the cold water. Was the old Indian really able to return the forest without a trace, Howard wonders, or was he “reabsorbed back, not only into trunk and root, stone and leaf but into light and shadow and season and time itself.”

To me, this reabsorption and transformation is what Tinkers is really all about. Howard – and Harding – seem to be telling us that we’re all changing, all of the time, we’re all dying and being transformed, every minute of every day. When Howard finds an old book in an attic, he writes in his journal, “The dust in the air was made up of the book I found. I breathed the book before I saw it; tasted the book before I read it.”

Tinkers is a luminous novel. It’s a beautiful meditation on living, dying, being transformed, nature, and the inexorable passage of time. One of the things I loved most about it was its gorgeous, poetic prose. So many American novels today are written in a very spare, stripped-down prose, and I’m not knocking spare, stripped-down prose. In some novels, it’s really the only thing that will work. But Tinkers needed something more to make it work, and Harding is the perfect prose stylist to provide that “something more.” His prose is exuberant, it’s joyful, it sings:

Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets. There was also the ring in Howard Crosby’s ears, a ring that began at a distance and came closer, until it sat in his ears, then burrowed into them. His head thrummed as if it were a clapper in a bell. Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes and rode on the ripples of the ringing throughout his body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and he had to hug himself to keep from unraveling. This was his aura, a cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure.

And yes, Tinkers is that rare novel that is truly difficult. We can’t know with certainly how reliable – or unreliable – its narrators are. Some readers will find the beautiful imagery “overwritten.” (They will be wrong, but personal taste is a valid concern when choosing a book.) In addition to the narratives of George, Howard, and Howard’s father, the book often quotes from another (fictional) book, “The Reasonable Horologist,” a book George is very fond of.

Tinkers' syntax is complicated and the book jumps around in time so much that I often had to flip back a few pages to see if Harding was still writing about George or Howard or Howard’s father. In fact, if I have any complaint about this lovely book, it’s that I found the transitions a little less than smooth, but this book is so well written, I can forgive that and almost forget it.

While it’s a gorgeous book, Tinkers isn’t a book for everyone. (And what book is?) It’s a mosaic of thoughts, meditations, memories, and vignettes. As I stated at the beginning of this review, it might take more than one reading to understand how all the little pieces fit together, and it’s certainly going to take some thought. Each piece, however, is a precious gem, and the final mosaic is intensely blinding in its beauty. This is a book that's worth thinking about. This is a book that's worth reading two, three times, maybe more. Not many books are truly “life-altering.” Tinkers is.

4.5/5

Recommended: If you like meditations on the meaning of life, love, loss, memory, etc. and you love gorgeous prose, then this is certainly the book for you. (I would have given it a 5/5 had the transitions been just a little smoother.) If you demand a plotted novel or don’t like to think too much, Tinkers isn’t going to be your cup of tea.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book Review - The Help by Kathryn Stockett


Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, Kathryn Stockett’s wonderful novel, The Help, centers around twenty-two year old Eugenia Phelan, more commonly known as “Skeeter” because she resembles a mosquito. Skeeter has just graduated from Ole Miss, and lacking something essential for young women newly graduated from college in the Deep South of the ‘60s – a husband – she returns to her parents’ cotton plantation, Longleaf.

Skeeter isn’t terribly upset that she, unlike most of her friends, has not yet married. She has her sites set on becoming a writer before she becomes one of the “ladies who lunch.” Her mother, however, is far more traditional, not that Skeeter’s mother should be the determining factor in deciding what direction Skeeter’s life takes. Though not dislikable, Skeeter’s mother has been an “absentee” mother. Like many other women of middle and upper income in the Deep South, Mrs. Phelan left the raising of Skeeter to a black nanny, in Skeeter’s case, one named Constantine. Skeeter loved Constantine, and after returning home, she finds that no one wants to tell her where Constantine is now or what happened to her. It’s Skeeter’s love for Constantine that will lead her to what forms the centerpiece of this book’s plot.

Not to be deterred from her writing ambitions, Skeeter takes the advice of a New York book publisher, who tells her to first gain some experience in the trenches by writing for a newspaper. Skeeter promptly lands a job writing an advice column on house cleaning tips for the “Jackson Journal.” The only problem is that Skeeter has never cleaned a house in her life. She simply doesn’t know what to write. Aibileen, however, does, and it’s to Aibileen that Skeeter turns.

Aibileen is a kind, dignified black woman in her fifties whose entire life has been dedicated to the service of Jackson’s white families. Aibileen has quietly and efficiently cleaned their homes and cooked their meals and most significant of all, raised their children, seventeen of them, to be exact. Aibileen had a grown son of her own, Treelore, who was killed working at a construction job site. When Treelore needed help, Aibileen says, the white men just looked the other way. When The Help opens, Aibileen is working for Skeeter’s best friend, Elizabeth Leefolt, cleaning and cooking and best of all, raising Elizabeth’s adorable daughter, Mae Mobley, who loves nothing so much as she loves strawberries.

Aibileen’s best friend is a woman whose most prominent qualities are very different from Aibileen’s quiet dignity. Although she, too, is a black working for white families, Minny has a sassy, outspoken attitude that gets her fired from jobs more often than it gets her hired, despite her considerable skills in the kitchen. And work isn’t the only struggle in Minny’s life. She has a home of her own and five young children and a drunken, abusive husband to deal with. When Minny gets a job with Miss Hilly, a woman too new in town to be aware of the difficulties Minny presents, this sassy, back talking maid becomes the one person in Jackson who holds a secret that could send the whole town reeling were she to reveal it – or prevent Minny from ever working in Jackson again.

Miss Hilly, who can most charitably be called “a witch,” institutes the “Home Health Sanitation Initiative,” which simply means that the black workers, including the maids who raise the children, cannot share a bathroom with the “white folk.” Miss Elizabeth, too quiet and traditional not to follow Hilly’s lead, has a bathroom built for Aibileen in the garage, one that the dignified Aibileen uses without complaint. Meanwhile, Miss Hilly’s Junior League puts on an elaborate fundraising effort for the “Poor Starving Children of Africa,” while ignoring Jackson’s own.

Although Skeeter, for the most part, is unaware of the racist attitudes and political tensions swirling around her (she grew up with them, after all), she’s not at all racist herself. One day, when she’s talking to Aibileen about her weekly column, she asks her a question that will turn both of their lives and the lives of many others, around: “Do you wish you could change things?”

Skeeter has hit on a plan to write a book called “Help,” exposing the plight of the blacks in 1960s Mississippi. As she puts it to a New York editor: “Everyone knows how we white people feel about the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family. But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it.” Until Skeeter came along, that is.

At first, the maids are hesitant and afraid to share their stories with Skeeter, but after Aibileen and Minny join forces, one by one, ten other maids come forward, and meeting secretly at night with Skeeter, the project begins to take shape. But the New York editor has imposed a deadline, so Skeeter and her new found friends must hurry.

Now, a white woman writing a book with twelve African-American maids doesn’t seem like such a dangerous project today, but in 1962 Mississippi, it was not only dangerous (the maids would face severe penalties if their employers ever found out), because of the Jim Crow laws, it was also illegal. As Aibileen puts it:

I reckon I know pretty well what would happen if the white ladies found out we was writing about them, telling the truth a what they really like. Womens, they ain’t like men. A woman ain’t gone beat you with a stick… No, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with them.

But Skeeter, somehow, makes colluding with her irresistible.

By now, you might be thinking that I’ve given away too much of the book’s plot. I want to assure you that this isn’t the case. I haven’t even touched on Skeeter’s eventual relationship with Stuart Wentworth, the Conservative senator’s son, or many of the other relationships in the book. Yes, the book’s narrative arc does arise from Skeeter’s own book project, but the real meat and potatoes of the novel lies in the relationships between Skeeter and the black maids, between the maids and their employers, between Skeeter and her one time good friends, between Aibileen and little Mae Mobley, and more. The Help, while on its surface, a light comedic novel, is still one with great depth and many layers. And hidden in those layers is outrage and horror, though Stockett only skirts the worst of the racial divides of the day.

Though the theme of The Help could have cause the book to develop a dark, serious tone, Stockett, instead, focuses on the gentler side of life, the affection between the maids and their young charges, the solidarity among the maids themselves, and the bond Skeeter develops with the women she comes to know so well. Even the book’s worst character, Miss Hilly, is portrayed with some warmth and affection. No, she’s not likable, but she can be funny – in her own way. Aibileen and Minny, especially are portrayed with great warmth and love. They are fully realized, three-dimensional characters who leap off the page and into the heart of the reader.

It’s Aibileen and Minny who share the narration of The Help with Skeeter, herself. Stockett does a wonderful job in differentiating each character’s voice, and it should be noted that while the maid’s dialogue is written in thick dialect, this dialect comes off as sincere and authentic. This must have been a very difficult balancing act for Stockett to achieve, but achieve it she does. The Help is a book that could have made so many missteps, a book that walked a very fine line without ever once crossing it. It’s a marvelous achievement, and one that’s truly original, enriching, and life affirming. If you’re like me, you won’t want this book to end.

5/5

Recommend: Definitely. This is a beautiful, accomplished novel and Stockett is a wonderful storyteller.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Book Review - Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


I don’t always read the Pulitzer winners when the prize is announced. Sometimes I wait. Sometimes I wait a few weeks. Sometimes I wait a few months, and on occasion, I wait a few years. So it was with Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and I’m deeply regretting waiting. Oh, well. At least I did read the book, and what a book it is. I’m hard pressed now to find a book to bump off my “all time top ten favorites” because Gilead certainly deserves a spot on that list.

Gilead is set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 and revolves around a wonderful character named John Ames, a seventy-six-year-old, third generation Congregationalist minister, who has a much younger wife and a seven-year-old son. Ames has recently been diagnosed with angina pectoris, and rightly or wrongly, he believes he hasn’t much time to live. He decides to set down the history of his family for his young son, hoping to leave the boy with a sense of heritage. Though it doesn’t read like one, Gilead is an epistolary novel, but it’s unlike any epistolary novel I’ve ever encountered.

Ames’ wife and son are not his first wife and child. Many years previously, Ames had another wife, Louisa, one closer to his own age at the time. Sadly, Louisa and her newborn baby died in childbirth, leaving John Ames so distraught that he turned away from any further attempts at marital love and devoted himself to his parishioners, instead. His new wife and son are like a gift, and a very surprising one at that. For Ames, this happy marriage and this late-in-life child are holy, like grace, and he feels singularly blessed.

Marilynne Robinson often gives sermons in her church. She knows that Gilead is a land east of Jordan famous for it’s healing balm. She also knows that in the Old Testament, at least, Gilead was also the scene of much war and bloodshed. In the Gilead of her book, John Ames finds both healing and war, he finds both blessings and things that trouble his soul.

As the Rev. John Ames begins his letter to his son, and as we begin reading Gilead, we’re struck with how very “Midwestern idyllic” the town sounds. In Ames’ words, Gilead is “…a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now.” It’s a place where people gather “to play catch of an evening, to smell the river, to hear the train pass.”

John Ames isn’t a man to let all this quiet beauty pass him by. He writes:

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely.

But as we read on, we find that all is not idyllic in Ames’ world. There is darkness as well as light. As he continues his letter to his son, Ames remembers the time the Negro church was set on fire and burned down and the terrible plight of a pregnant, unwed girl who lived with her family “…in an isolated house with a lot of mean dogs under the porch.”

As Ames writes his legacy to his small son, he remembers both his father and his grandfather, both Congregationalist preachers and both also named “John Ames,” but preachers who were very different from each other. Ames’ grandfather was full of “fire and brimstone” and he often preached with a pistol tucked into his belt. He left Maine for Kansas to fight for abolition and even rode with John Brown, himself. Our narrator describes his grandfather as “a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it.” To say Grandfather Ames was a colorful character is an understatement.

It’s also fair to say that Grandfather Ames was a little too flamboyant for his son, our narrator’s father, also named John Ames and also a preacher. This John Ames was very much a pacifist, a man who believed his father was “preaching men into war,” and who eventually quarreled with that father so bitterly that the older man left his son’s home and returned to Kansas, where he eventually died.

“We live in the ruins of the lives of other generations,” writes our narrator as he struggles to come to terms with his legacy – the fire and brimstone of his grandfather and the pacifism of his father – and as he faces his own moral crisis in the form of his godson, John Ames Boughton, better known as Jack, who has recently returned to Gilead from St. Louis after an absence of several decades. Now in his forties, Jack is the son of John Ames’ best friend, Old Boughton, Gilead’s Presbyterian minister. It was John Ames who baptized Jack in Boughton’s church, but his bond with the boy was always strained. First a prankster, then a ne’er-do-well, Jack is thought by his father and siblings as a man who can do no wrong, but Ames knows better, though his boundless charity compels him to keep silent. Ostensibly, Jack has come home to see his dying father, but John Ames wonders if a more sinister reason could be behind the man’s return.

More specifically, Ames is concerned with Jack Boughton’s attempts to insert himself into his own family life – playing catch with his son and saying things that make Mrs. Ames laugh. And even as he is concerned with his own family, Ames, who is such a thoroughly good man, find it “disgraceful” that he can’t speak to Jack “in a way becoming a pastor.” It isn’t until Jack seeks out his godfather for spiritual advice and counsel that Ames realizes that those who seem the least among us may, perhaps, be angels unaware.

Gilead is an immensely moving novel. It is both a novel and a meditation on the relationship between fathers and sons and the legacy fathers leave to their offspring. It’s also an exploration of the workings of fate and faith and how the two intertwine, on what the measure of a man should be, and what things are worth living for as well as worth dying for. Since the book spans approximately one hundred years – from the 1850s to 1956 – it also provides a look into a sad time in American history, a time of racial inequality and injustice. In fact, it’s this theme that forms the centerpiece, not of the book, itself, but of the book’s plot.

Gilead should be read for its quiet dignity, its humanity, and its exploration of the ties that bind fathers and sons, but no review of the book would be complete without mentioning its gorgeous prose. Like the story, the prose in this book is quiet and unassuming, though it is complex. Robinson writes with deep insight into what it means to be human. Her prose is masterfully controlled and it befits the quiet dignity of the Rev. John Ames. There are no pyrotechnics in this book. Robinson wisely leaves those to other writers. Instead, Robinson’s prose flows over the reader like the balm of Gilead flowed over the wounded. There are sentences in this book the reader will probably never forget – or at least should never forget. One example is when John Ames is writing about grief and loneliness. “I do not remember grief and loneliness,” he says, “so much as I do peace and comfort – grief, but never without comfort, loneliness, but never without peace.”

And Robinson doesn’t forget the details, such as Ames’ love of baseball and fried egg sandwiches – details that allow us entrance into the lives of her characters, the details that make them so dazzlingly, heartbreakingly human. It is details like these that make the reader come to not only understand, but to love the Rev. John Ames. It causes even those whose faith is weak to sigh with contentment and agree with Ames, when, near the book’s end, he declares, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

Gilead is one of those reasons. It is “holy, like grace,” and the reader feels “singularly blessed.”

5/5

Recommended: This is a "must read" for anyone who likes serious, beautifully written fiction.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The 2010 Mann Booker Prize


Last night (October 12th) at a lavish dinner in London’s Guildhall, Sir Andrew Motion, Chair of the Judges, announced that Howard Jacobson is the winner of 2010’s prestigious Mann Booker Prize for his tragicomic novel, The Finkler Question. The book was published by Bloomsbury and is the third book from that press to win the prize. The other two are Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000) and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992), although Bloomsbury has had six books shortlisted including Cats Eye (1989), Alias Grace (1996) and Oryx and Crake (2003), all by Margaret Atwood, Lies of Silence (1990) by Brian Moore, Crossing the River (1993) by Caryl Phillips and The Map of Love (1999) by Ahdaf Soueif.

Along with the prestige of winning the Booker, Jacobson was presented with a check for 50,000 Euros and can count on vastly increased sales of his book. A London author and columnist, Jacobson has been longlisted twice previously (Kalooki Nights in 2006 and Who’s Sorry Now in 2002), but has never been shortlisted before this year. Each of the six finalists received a check for 2,500 Euros and a designer bound edition of his or her book. All of the nominated books can now expect stronger sales. In fact, sales of the books on the longlist for this year are running more than forty-five percent higher than last year.

The Finkler Question made Booker history in that it is the first comic novel to win the much sought after prize. It revolves around love, loss, and male friendship, and as with all of Jacobson’s books, it explores the meaning of being Jewish in today’s society. It has been described as containing “some of the wittiest, most poignant and sharply intelligent comic prose in the English language” and as “wonderful” and “richly satisfying” and as a novel “full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding.”

The plot of The Finkler Question revolves around two men who are old school friends, Julian Treslove, a Gentile BBC radio producer whose career has been marked by its mediocrity, and Sam Finkler, a very popular Jewish philosopher, writer, and television personality. Treslove and Finkler have a “prickly” past, but are held together in friendship partly by their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a native Czech who writes “tell all” biographies of former stars, such as the elusive Greta Garbo. Both Libor and Sam have been recently widowed. Finkler has never married, but his spectacular lack of success with women, despite his movie star good looks, renders him an honorary “third widower.” One night, after dining at Libor’s lavish apartment in the Regent’s Park district of London and reminiscing about the “good old days” before each had suffered so many losses and disappointments, at precisely 11.30 pm, Treslove pauses beneath the window of the oldest violin shop in town, and he is attacked and robbed. After the assault, Finkler, who has always wanted to be Jewish himself, begins to question just who and what he really is and who and what he really wants to be.

Andrew Motion said, “The Finkler Question is a marvelous book: very funny, of course, but also very clear, very sad and very subtle. It is all that it seems to be and much more than it seems to be. A completely worthy winner of this great prize.”

Howard Jacobson, who was born in Manchester on August 25, 1942, studied English at Cambridge and taught that subject at the University of Sydney, Selwyn College, Cambridge and Wolverhampton Polytecnic. Even before this year’s Booker win, he was an award winning novelist and critic, who writes a weekly column for the “Independent” and has written and presented several documentaries for television. He lives in London.

The Finkler Question was chosen as the winner of 2010’s Booker Prize from a pool of 138 entries, including fourteen called in by the judges.

The shortlisted entries were:

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury) Winner
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Faber and Faber)
Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador/Pan Macmillan)
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (Atlantic Books/Grove Atlantic)
The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Headline
Review/Headline Publishing Group)
C by Tom McCarthy (Jonathan Cape/Random House)

Congratulations to Howard Jacobson on this very prestigious win.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Review - The Known World by Edward P. Jones


The Known World, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award is set on a plantation in antebellum Virginia, in the fictional county of Manchester, “the largest county in Virginia, a place of 2,191 slaves, 142 free Negroes, 939 whites, and 136 Indians, most of them Cherokee but with a sprinkling of Choctaw.”

Henry Townsend, the man around whom much of The Known World revolves, is a free black man, but his history is somewhat different than that of most black men in the southern US in the 1840s. Henry is not only free, he’s also a landowner and slaveowner himself, much to the dismay and outrage of his freed parents, Augustus and Mildred, two people who possess great dignity and two people who do not deserve the fate life has waiting for them. Unfortunately, Henry has learned to emulate, not his father, but his mentor, William Robbins, instead.

William Robbins is the most powerful white man in Manchester County, and he just happens to be deeply in love with one of his own black slaves, Philomena. He adores their two small children even though he’s prohibited from acknowledging those children as his own.

Despite his admiration of Robbins, Henry wanted to be a better master than Robbins, a better master than any white man had ever known. Ironically, the first slave Henry buys, he buys from William Robbins:

Moses was the first slave Henry Townsend had bought: $325 and a bill of sale from William Robbins, a white man. It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made. Sleeping in a cabin beside Henry in the first weeks after the sale, Moses had thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business anymore?

The Known World opens in July 1855 as Henry Townsend is lying on his deathbed. He is only thirty-one years old. It’s not until after Henry’s death that Jones takes us back to this complex man’s youth and we get to know William Robbins, Philomena, Augustus, Mildred, Moses and the many other characters that populate this book. The book constantly shifts back and forth in time, but these shifts are handled smoothly and gracefully and the reader is never confused or disoriented with the non-linear narrative.

One of the most fascinating characters we meet in the course of The Known World is Caldonia, Henry’s young widow. At his death, Henry left Caldonia thirty-three slaves – thirteen women, eleven men, and nine children, and, on becoming their new owner, Caldonia is immediately faced with the decision of whether or not to free them. She quickly decides that following in her husband’s footsteps would be best for her – and her business interests. “Her husband had done the best he could,” Caldonia thinks, “and on Judgment Day his slaves would stand before God and testify to that fact.”

To some extent, we can forgive Caledonia the inhumanity of not freeing Henry’s slaves. Her role models certainly were not good ones. Besides Henry, there’s Maude, her domineering mother, a woman who was not above using arsenic on Caldonia’s father to make sure their own slaves were not freed. Then there’s Fern, Caldonia’s literature and etiquette instructor. Fern also encourages Caldonia, not only to retain the slaves Henry has purchased, but to socialize with William Robbins and Philomena and their two children as well as other free blacks who owned slaves. As Fern says later, to a fictional historian, “All of us do only what the law and God tell us we can do. We owned slaves. It was what was done, and so that is what we did.”

Jones writes with a sureness that many novels lack, but he never lets us get too close to any one of his characters. In most books, that would be a failing. In this one, it’s a plus. Keeping the events in the book somewhat distanced from the reader and placing them squarely in the history of the South, Jones has invented a Canadian historian (one who interviews Fern as a matter of fact, and who writes a pamphlet titled “Curiosities and Oddities About Our Southern Neighbors”). Personally, I loved this invention of Jones’. It allows him to insert details about his characters that otherwise might have weighed his main narrative down. And, to show he does have a sense of humor, Jones tells us that copies of this rare pamphlet were purchased for $1.7 million by a German with a penchant for “black” memorabilia.

I’ve heard some people refer to The Known World as a “pastiche of characters.” While it’s true that many characters abound in this book (I’ve only touched on a few in this review, there’s also Elias and Celeste and Alice and Barnum and many more), and they do give the book a very 19th century feel, but each one is fully developed and complex and fascinating. True, the book is introspective, and because it is, it is rather slow moving, but characterization is one of its high points. In The Known World, no one is wholly good or wholly bad.

One of the best examples of Jones’ skill at creating believable and complex characters is seen in the sheriff, John Skiffington. Skiffington is a Christian, and one who earnestly attempts to practice what he preaches. Convinced that the “law always cares” for everyone equally, Skiffington attempts to implement this ideal into his work. Of course, the law, which is not quite as idealistic as Skiffington, does not care for each person equally, so Skiffington is doomed from the very beginning.

The Known World is a rich and multilayered book, and Jones’ prose, despite the multitude of detail in the book, is surprisingly light on its feet. In fact, it’s Jones’ voice that moves this almost plotless book along. The example below, which details Henry Townsend’s death is one of the best:

About nine he fell asleep and woke not long after. His wife and Fern were discussing a Thomas Gray poem. He thought he knew the one they were talking about but as he formed some words to join the conversation, death stepped into the room and came to him: Henry walked up the steps into the tiniest of houses, knowing with each step that he did not own it, that he was only renting.

If you need a book that centers on a plot with a breakneck pace, The Known World won’t be the one for you. If, however, you enjoy books that inspire you to think, books that make you wish you could rewrite a part of history no one is particularly proud of, then you’ll find much to reflect on as you read The Known World. Its characters are richly and beautifully rendered and all are people who won’t soon be forgotten. This isn't "another book on slavery." It is, instead, about the legacy of slavery, a legacy that cannot, and will not, and should not be forgotten.

5/5

Recommended: Definitely, for those who enjoy character driven books and don’t require a breakneck plot to keep them engaged.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa Wins Nobel Prize for Literature


Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature on October 7th. Vargas Llosa, who won the Cervantes Prize in 1995, once ran for president of Peru, but was defeated by Alberto Fujimori. Vargas Llosa is now seventy-four and has written more than thirty novels, plays, and essays, including the highly acclaimed Conversation in the Cathedral, The War of the End of the World, and The Feast of the Goat.

The prize for literature has come under fire in recent years as being too “Eurocentric.” In the past six years, five Europeans have won the prize and one Turk (Orhun Pamuk). Last year’s prize went to the German writer, Herta Mueller.

Vargas Llosa is the first South American writer to win since Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez won in 1982 and the first Spanish language writer to win since Mexico’s Octavio Paz in 1990.

The Academy praised Vargas Llosa, saying he won, in part, because he mapped the “structures of power and (for) his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Academy called Vargas Llosa a “divinely gifted storyteller” and said his “…books are often very complex in composition, having different perspectives, different voices and different time places. He is also doing it in a new way, he has helped evolve the art of the narration.”

Vargas Llosa, on learning he’d won literature’s most coveted prize said, “I am very grateful to the Swedish Academy. It is totally unexpected, a real surprise. I think it is, for any writer, a great encouragement, a recognition of a world. (This award is) an enormous act of justice that in truth, we have been waiting for since our youth. I thought that the Academy was not recognizing me but all Latin American literature.”

Vargas Llosa has already won many of the Western world’s most prestigious literary awards, and his work, which is almost universally admired in Latin America, has been translated into thirty-one languages.

Toni Morrison, also a Nobel winner and a faculty member at Princeton University, where Vargas Llosa is currently teaching a semester, called his win a “brilliant choice.”

While Vargas Llosa has always drawn inspiration and material from his native Peru, after he lost his bid for president to Fujimori, he took Spanish citizenship and lived primarily in Madrid and London, though he has always maintained an apartment in Peru’s capital of Lima. He never wanted to be a politician, he said, but felt it was an “obligation for a writer to participate in public debate. I became a candidate because of various circumstances in my country. We had terrorism, we had civil war, we had high inflation.” (It should be noted that Fujimori fled to Japan in 2000 amid numerous findings of corruption in his government.)

Congratulations to Mario Vargas Llosa. The Nobel has been a long time coming, but as with most good things, it seems it was well worth the wait.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Say "Hi" To My Mom


Please say "hello" to my mother, Gabrielle Renoir-Binoche. I've asked mom to write a guest book review or two while Sebastien and I are busy moving from Ohio into our new home in Beverly Hills. I'm not sure if she'll do (my mother is more of a reader than a writer), but I hope she does, and if she does, I'll post her reviews.

In the meantime, Sebastien and I will be starting a blog about living life in beautiful Beverly Hills! I hope we're moved in completely soon because I have so many books I want to finish! And I have three screenplays to write! It's a busy time for us.

Happy reading!