December 22, 2014

Another End-of-the-Year Book Catchup

There's no theme to this set of reviews, other than that they're the ones I have left to post as the year winds down:

THE AMADO WOMEN by Désirée Zamorano is a story about a family coping with secrets and resentments, which is right up my fictional alley.

Mercy Amado is pleased about celebrating her sixtieth birthday with her three grown daughters, but she's concerned that none of her girls are as happy in their lives, or with each other, as they might be. And Mercy doesn't even know about the worst of the problems. The narrative rotates among the four Amado women as they face challenges and heartbreak that sometimes bring them together as a family and sometimes drive them apart.

The novel features strong, complex characters who often act against their own best interests, which makes for great dramatic fodder. There's a lot of tragedy and upsetting subject matter in this story, but enough hope to leave readers feeling uplifted. I found this book useful in thinking about my own writing, which covers some similar themes.

SELF-HELP by Lorrie Moore: In keeping with the title, most of the stories in this collection are framed as a set of instructions, though the way this premise plays out in the narrative differs between stories. For example, "How" tells the story of a troubled relationship (as so many of these stories do) by directing the reader through a series of steps, some of which include options:

Somehow--in a restaurant or a store--meet an actor. From Vassar or Yale. He can quote Coriolanus's mother. This will seem good. Sleep with him once and ride home at 5 a.m. crying in a taxicab. Or: don't sleep with him. Kiss him good night at Union Square and run for your life.

Not every story in the collection appealed to me, but I love Moore's writing style, which is conversational and clever, full of wordplay, jokes, and unusual but apt descriptions. Like this paragraph:

When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.

That's from "How to Be an Other Woman", the first story in the collection and the one I liked best. As the title suggests, the plot is generic, every mistress's story, but the specificity of the character and her thoughts makes the story gripping, and often wryly funny.

The other story I especially admired is "How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)". The narrative moves backwards, starting some years after the mother's death and stepping back through time, offering glimpses of the main character's life at each stage. The chronology and the brevity create a quiet suspense in this story where almost everything goes unsaid.

This was Moore's first collection, and she has published several others as well as some novels, so I'll be looking out for more of her writing.

THE ART OF TIME IN FICTION by Joan Silber is an exploration of different ways the passage of time is portrayed and used in stories and novels. Silber discusses examples (drawn from a variety of times and cultures) that illustrate several categories of fictional time she's identified and points out how the authors skillfully represent long spans, brief moments, multiple time periods, and so on.

This is a short book, a small paperback of only a bit more than 100 pages, and my main complaint is that it isn't longer. Silber writes clearly and with insight, and I would have happily read far more of her musings about time. In particular, I expected this to be a writing guide, with practical suggestions about choosing the time frame of a story and conveying the passage of time. There is certainly much to be learned from the examples Silber dissects, but I was hoping for a more instructional focus.

What is included is thought-provoking, and I would recommend it to readers and writers who enjoy analyzing specific aspects of writing craft. I'd love to hear if there are any other books covering this topic.

As in fiction, time passes in real life, and we're approaching one of those significant milestones we use to mark that passage. This will probably be my final post of the year, because now I'm off to savor some time with family -- and read a whole bunch more books, which I'll tell you all about in the new year!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kirsten Reach at the Melville House blog catches us up on the latest round of debate over likability of female characters: "[Claire] Messud's interview seemed to kick off more than a year of authors reflecting on the way the women in their novels were received, especially if the reviewer assumed some traits in their characters were drawn from the authors' own lives."

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