It’s not exactly writer’s block. But I have chronic difficulty writing about exceptional books and great American authors.
How long has it been since I promised to finish my review of J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy?” Is it a novel about small-town life, or hypocrisy, or intolerance, or poverty? Local politics gone crazy, or class warfare? Darned if I know. I’d have to read the whole thing again to sort it all out. (Rowling is British, but her story resounds in American culture.)
As I read the final page of “The Casual Vacancy,” I was struck speechless. Partly it’s a sense of grief that the book is over. Partly it’s awe at the author’s virtuoso performance. What can I say but, “Bravo!”?
Among contemporary authors, Ann Patchett amazes me the most. I never wrote a word about Patchett’s “State of Wonder.” What could I say? What kind of story is it, science fiction? Corporate treachery vs. scientific deception? Human hubris? The premise is a discovery so unlikely that you find yourself believing it, combined with an adventure so implausible that it has to be real. Yet it’s all nothing more than a figment — an elaborate figment — of Patchett’s hyperactive imagination! (Patchett and the following authors are all American originals.)
Maybe I’m so overwhelmed by a story or a message that I don’t know where to begin. How can I possibly describe the experience of inhaling a great book? How can a mere human possess such genius?
Patchett’s “Bel Canto” left me similarly gasping. So many perfectly drawn characters. The first sentence rivets your attention until the violent conclusion wrings you out. In between, don’t tell me . . . it’s a story about opera? I don’t even like opera! No wait, it’s also about the gulf between rich and poor in a Latin American backwater. And about hostages and hospitality. In the end, the powerful destroy the peasants.
Where does Patchett get this stuff?
It goes beyond mastery of the English language. Far beyond. It’s the invention of story. The marshaling of knowledge. The insight into the human soul. The explanation of the inexplicable. It’s the truth.
What could I possibly say to do justice to the adventure and romance and history in Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain?”
How could I write about Anne Tyler’s “Ladder of Years?” There’s so much more here than meets the eye. I didn’t realize that the most important theme is grief until the third time I read the book. Many of Tyler’s novels are similarly multilayered with psychological insight.
“The Good Earth,” by Pearl S. Buck in 1931. Here’s a story so vast yet human, from a time and place and culture so far from my own world. It’s not a difficult read; it’s a fascinating story. But I’d need to study the book for a month before I could dare to write about it.
“To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee in 1960. Now there’s a story that knocks the wind out of you. It’s fiction, but it’s rooted in reality. How many times have I read this masterpiece? The basic story is etched in my mind. It’s not the kind of thing you forget. But many details are swirling in fog. Rarely are the characters of children so well-developed. The black woman who cooks the meals and mothers the children is a central character. You don’t often find a scene so beautifully told as her visit with two small white children to an African-American church in the deep South. The steely determination of the heroic, white attorney is juxtaposed against the dignity and humility of the unjustly accused black man.
I have to add a personal favorite. “The Last Hurrah,” by Edwin O’Connor, in 1956. I read it in high school, and maybe it kindled my fascination with politics. It’s a deceptively straight-forward story about a deceptively complex character. O’Connor skillfully creates an ambiguous picture of Mayor Frank Skeffington. Is he a corrupt scoundrel, or a heroic populist leader? Could he possibly be both?
O’Connor wrote other excellent but less well-known novels, such as “I Was Dancing” and “The Edge of Sadness.” Those novels deserve a little recognition. “The Edge of Sadness” is possibly O’Connor’s best book. Like “The Last Hurrah,” it captures a vivid snapshot Irish-Catholic life in America at one passing moment. “Hurrah” is about politicians; “Sadness” is about priests.
There’s one other reason I fail to write the reviews I want to write. My fickle attention moves on. So many other books to read!
This week I plunged into “Team of Rivals,” by the great contemporary historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s an overly ambitious biography, not only of Abraham Lincoln, but also several of his great rivals, including William Henry Seward.
“Team of Rivals” is one damned thick book, 916 pages including index and footnotes. How does an author research and organize such a project? Goodwin does it repeatedly. “Rivals” is her fourth remarkable (and long) biography. All of them are about American political giants. After the first 148 pages, my impression is that “Rivals” may be her masterwork.
That’s my Christmas gift to you, friends and readers. If you’re looking for a good story, I recommend any of the books or authors on this list.
— John Hayden
- Ann Patchett on the Art & Craft of Writing (persephonewrites.wordpress.com)