Why Fiction Writers Should Read Poetry

Figurative language and lyricism are essential elements of literary fiction, but  they can be some of the techniques most misused by young writers, resulting in unnecessarily inflated prose.

Recently, VONA faculty at their first regional writing conference, hosted in partnership with the University of Miami Creative Writing Department, held a reading at Books and Books in Coral Gables, FL, where this issue was briefly broached by poet and VONA faculty member, Willie Perdomo Continue reading

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Nox – Anne Carson

Grief in Translation

Anne Carson’s Nox, Latin for night, is a new breed of manuscript in more ways than one. This collage-style-journal-turned-book defies categorization—novel, poem, pastiche? The physical format—a sturdy box packaging that houses an accordion-fold book with no spine—allows the reader the versatility to view as many or few pages at a time as they prefer. Once removed from the box-cover, the book becomes fragile and intimate appropriately mirroring its content.* Continue reading

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

A Narrative Symphony

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a masterfully interwoven novel that tells in many voices, six to be exact. Through a Russian doll construction, readers are exposed to six different narratives ranging across centuries from the travel diary of an American lawyer’s crossing of the Pacific Ocean in 1850 to a distant post-apocalyptic world where man’s greed has destroyed most of civilization and the remaining humans have returned to a primitive tribal system. In between, the reader encounters an epistolary account of a young composer’s tenure as assistant to an older, more established composer, a pulp-fiction drama set in the 1970’s where the savvy reporter, Luisa Rey, takes on corporate in the form of Seaboard Power, Inc., the witty memoir of Timothy Cavendish, a book editor who is held in a nursing home against his will, and a science fiction-style interview with Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered human clone who has ascended from the role of illiterate slave to assert her own humanity. Continue reading

The Weight of Water – Anita Shreve

Small Moments Build Intolerable Tension

It is 1995 and Jean Janes, a photojournalist, has come to Smuttynose Island, the site of two brutal murders in 1873, to shoot on assignment. She travels with her husband, Thomas, their daughter, Billie, her brother-in-law, Rich and Rich’s girlfriend, Adelaide. While living in close quarters on her brother-in-law’s boat, the emerging attraction between Thomas and the alluring Adelaide causes Jean to question her husband’s fidelity.

Shreve builds these suspicions line by line using small intimate moments, gestures and signs that pass unspoken between husband and wife—the subtle scent in the sheets, a slight blanch of the cheeks, eyes quickly averted from an exposed thigh. Perhaps the most masterful writing occurs on the line level where Shreve hints at and explores the weakest points of this fifteen-year  marriage—Thomas’s (Jean’s husband) alcoholism, Jean’s fears that she has always been his second choice and her persisting silence on these matters.

But this main action is intensified as it interacts with the translated memoir of Maren Honvedt, the only survivor of the 1873 killing. Like Jean, Maren finds herself watching the unwinding of her most prized relationship. Shreve expertly splices and weaves together Jean’s first person account, Maren Hontvedt’s translated memoir (fictionalized by Shreve), and the actual court transcripts from the case The State of Maine v. Louis H. F. Wagner into an account of the slow choices whose sum weight elicits tragic consequences. Shreve characterizes both women through their deft descriptions of other characters, specifically the men they love and the women that attract them.

While the trajectory of the book seems focused on the parallel between two women who are pushed to the limits by claustrophobia, disappointment and loss, perhaps the richest element is the examination of marriage as the “most mysterious covenant in the universe”—a series of random choices or the deep inevitable current between two people? While this is probed for at least three quarters of the book, Shreve’s focus slips away as the action culminates in the haunting ending that proves a somewhat heavy-handed point about human behavior when pushed to the limit.

An engaging and heart-wrenching read buoyed with beautiful language and landscapes and the exuberance of Jean’s daughter Billie. Strong female characters to watch in whose obsessive comparisons and insecurities readers might find glimpses of themselves.

The Quickening – Michelle Hoover

You Can’t Pick Your Neighbors

Michelle Hoover’s first novel, The Quickening, enters the gritty, high-stakes relationship between two women building homes and raising families on the austere Midwest prairie at the turn of 20th century. Sturdy and determined Enidina “Eddie” Current has been rescued from spinsterhood by her quiet and faithful husband Frank. Her farm skills and solid work ethic promise to yield a satisfying but hard life, until the neighborly interference of Mary Morrow begins to affect the course of Eddie’s family. Mary is Eddie’s opposite, a delicate urban transplant. Jack, her loud vivacious husband, can be something of an abusive brute, but nothing seems to happen to Mary unless she is a part of his whirlwind. Ironically, Mary is the partner with a dark past and a history of destructive self justification. Jack shares her propensity toward interference in others’ affairs, specifically when he kills the Current’s hogs in response to the difficult economic conditions, but against Eddie and Frank’s wishes. Throughout the course of the novel, compromise becomes a method of survival for both families. Continue reading