Thursday, May 19, 2011

Kept Awake by Literature

Like most writers these days, I have a day job. And by day, I mean it starts at 8 a.m. Not horrendous, but a daily challenge for a night owl like myself. I work at it. I use a blue light when I first wake up, hoping that it will rouse the bleary brain; I try to exercise vigorously, so the physical unit has an excuse to need sleep; I limit caffeine in the afternoon and double down on the Sleepytime tea.  Sometimes all this works, sometimes even for several weeks in a row. My undoing, though, is when I take literature to bed.

Here are three of the latest culprits that have cut into my morning efficiency and effectiveness at the workplace.

Union Atlantic, by Adam Haslett.
Good Lord, what a story, such a cast of characters! Haslett presents the world of Wall Street and high finance to us for what it is: characters of odd moral character controlled by one of most basic motivators of all, greed. What appeared to me as a story too complex, too technical, too convoluted to tackle, instead became a Shakespearean tale, comprehensible to all. And not all that fictional, as we have  come to find out.

Can't wait to delve into his book of short stories, "You Are Not A Stranger Here." It's on the bedside table, just begging to deprive me of honest sleep.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett.
So many people told me about this book that I had to read it. One of those recommenders simply pressed it into my hands saying, "Here, just read it. Then we'll talk." And so it happened.

Well, I found the story completely engrossing and compelling. Though I wasn't of the place, I am of the times; the book rang absolutely true for me.  Stockett sets her novel in 1962, in Jackson, Mississippi, during the birthing pangs of what we all hoped would be a new era. Like all births, it was very rarely pretty.

The story is told from the points of view of three protagonists: a recently-graduated white journalist, Skeeter, just returned to her home town, and two black maids, Abileen and Minny, whom she enlists in her project, writing a book that will reveal the maids' true reality. I was terrified for the maids most of the time and irritated with Skeeter for so blithely assuming everything would be fine since she, white and privileged, was involved. Slowly, Skeeter begins to understand the real risks these women take in telling their stories.

While much has been discussed in reviews and the book-blogosphere about Stockett's rendering of the maid's dialect in the book, I found her ability to capture their vernacular impressive. And I found that it located this story in its era. I do think Stockett could have also rendered the white Southerner's vernacular and voice more accurately, which I think would have enriched the book and balanced the treatment of the voices. But I'm willing to listen to opinions of others.

Meanwhile, it kept me up way after hours, leaving me to stumble into work bleary-eyed and late every day for a  week.

Blame, by Michelle Huneven – another compelling story, tautly written, that kept me up way past my bedtime. A cautionary tale from the get -go: a woman is convicted for a double murder committed during an alcoholic blackout.  The enduring consequences are well captured, as Patsy's life is forever molded by the chain of events. Huneven's prose is sinuous and flexible, ranging from the tenseness of prison life to the lyrical beauty of landscape and oceanscape, a beauty too often ignored even by those free from prison bars. There is a beacon that shines below the text of this book, much as there is in our own lives, a beacon and a beauty just waiting to be acknowledged.

Full disclosure: both Adam Haslett and Michelle Huneven will be faculty at the Napa Valley Writers Conference this summer. Those participants are so darn lucky!

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