Thursday, April 30, 2009

Reading Lessons

I read more to learn than to be entertained (learning = entertainment!) and two recent novels have lessons I'm still thinking about.

One is Kathryn Stockett's phenomenal debut, The Help. Narrated from 1962 Mississippi by two black domestics (the "household help") and a young white aspiring writer -- all of whom see things differently than the people around them -- it's about race, class status, gender roles, friendship, and the definitions of family. It's full of emotion, film-quality imagery, palpable suspense ... with subplots so seamlessly woven that I only noticed when they intersected and it became apparent how perfectly they'd been set up. The novel is compelling -- and even life-changing, if the fictional editor's advice about writing is extended to a metaphor for living:
"Don't waste your time on the obvious things. Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else."
And so these three narrators -- and author Kathryn Stockett -- did.

Another is also a terrific fiction debut, Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone. It's the story of Marion Praise Stone, born in 1954 Ethiopia of Sister Mary Joseph Praise (an Indian Carmelite nun) and Thomas Stone (an exceptional British surgeon), and (temporarily conjoined) twin to brother, Shiva Praise Stone.

Set mostly in and around a mission hospital in the capital city of Addis Ababa, the first hundred pages are riveting and the next 400 are fascinating, tender, and funny explorations of family, immigration, politics, loyalty, and the practice of medicine and surgery. With something to keep in mind when struggling in difficult work:
I grew up and I found my purpose and it was to become a physician. […] I chose the specialty of surgery because of Matron, that steady presence during my boyhood and adolescence. "What is the hardest thing you can possibly do?" she said when I went to her for advice on the darkest day of the first half of my life.

I squirmed. How easily Matron probed the gap between ambition and expediency. "Why must I do what is hardest?"

"Because, Marion, you are an instrument of God. Don’t leave the instrument sitting in its case, my son. Play! Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for 'Three Blind Mice' when you can play the 'Gloria'?"

[…] I was temperamentally better suited to a cognitive discipline, to an introspective field -- internal medicine, or perhaps psychiatry. The sight of the operating theater made me sweat. The idea of holding a scalpel caused coils to form in my belly. (It still does.) Surgery was the most difficult thing I could imagine.
For more (no spoilers), see my comments in LibraryThing's Reading Globally Africa Theme Read. And NPR has a nice podcast of Abraham Verghese reading one of my favorite passages -- the descriptive, touching, and very funny performance of a vasectomy. Which brings to mind another takeaway from Cutting for Stone: Verghese's entreaty that healthcare personnel return to the bedside -- and remember the presence of the actual patient there, instead of industrial medicine’s increasing emphasis on patient as data in a computer -- a la:
Q: "What treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?"
A: (See the comments)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What Kind of Writer Are You?

In his terrific restaurant memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain describes several types of cooks:

You’ve got your Artists: the annoying, high-maintenance minority. [...] so ethereal and perfect that delusions of grandeur are tolerated.
Then there are the Exiles: people who just can’t make it in any other business, could never survive a nine-to-five job, wear a tie or blend in with civilized society -- and their comrades, the Refugees, [...] for whom cooking is preferable [to other work].
Finally, there are the Mercenaries: people who do it for cash and do it well. Cooks who, though they have little love or natural proclivity for cuisine, do it at a high level because they are paid well to do it -- and because they are professionals.
I see, in those descriptions, several types of writers. The literary Artists whose originality and perfection stop my breath and force me to endure beats of despair until I accept that such will never be me. The Exiles (whom I don't understand) and the Refugees (whom I'm currently aligned with, although reconsidering). But overall, being a practical person at heart (with an enormous love of literature) and good at execution, I am, I suppose, a Mercenary.

Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman -- not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that [...] Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying. And I’ll generally take a stand-up mercenary who takes pride in his professionalism over an artist any day. When I hear “artist,” I think of someone who doesn’t think it necessary to show up [...]. More often than not artists’ efforts [...] are geared more [to themselves...] than satisfying the great majority of dinner customers.
What kind of writer are you?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Two years ago, it was cell-phone salesman Paul Potts.

Now last Saturday, it’s Susan Boyle, unemployed and dreaming to dream.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Cover (back)Story

I like behind-the-story stories -- seeing the moment that sparks an idea, seeing an accumulation of moments that combine into new meaning … and then seeing what story evolved from the inspiration. (Hence the link to M. J. Rose’s Backstory in my blogroll.)

And from the opposite end, I like seeing how a finished story is reflected in a title and book cover. I haven’t discovered a source for titles yet, but did enjoy Barnes & Noble Studio's (caution: audio alert) short-lived video-interview series, Cover Story, and its discussion thread.

And now I’m over the moon about a blog on book covers by the graphic-design firm, Fwis. It’s admittedly focused on the visual art, but literary and publishing details do pop up in the comment threads or by following the links to designers’ websites. Go. Enjoy!