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Here’s some cool news from a couple weeks ago, as Nebraska/Iowa writer Mary Helen Stefaniak received a Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her latest novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. MHS is a beloved professor at Creighton University and she deserves all the accolades she can get.
As described by jury chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the press release:
The 2011 Anisfield-Wolf winners are notable for the unique way each author addresses the complex issues of race and cultural diversity. [...] The books and authors honored this year stand out, not only for their creative and wide-ranging approach to difficult subject matter, but also for their underlying faith in our shared humanity.
Pretty important stuff, huh?
MHS will be honored at a ceremony in Cleveland this September, where she will hobnob with the other winners, such as Nicole Krauss, and jury members, like Joyce Carol Oates and Rita Dove.
Great going, Mary Helen! This is really awesome. We’re so happy for you.
I read Ellen Horan’s novel 31 Bond Street (Harper, and now in paperback from Harper Perennial) last spring with the idea of reviewing it, but the review just never really came together. However, that being said, I still think the book warrants some comment and I’d like to use this space to give more of a free form appraisal. My main difficulty in reviewing the novel is my inexperience with commercial fiction. (I’m not the type of writer/critic who really gets into “guilty pleasure” reads. Usually I’m so far behind on things I’ve promised to read that there isn’t really time for it. Plus, I really enjoy bad, bad movies–and bad baseball teams for that matter, see kcroyals.com for evidence–so there isn’t much room for more guilty pleasures anyway.) Whenever I thought of 31 Bond Street as a work of literature, I kept trying to fit it into the kinds of rubrics I’d normally use to analyze a book, i.e. high literary forms. But, as 31 Bond Street isn’t a literary novel, it didn’t quite seem fair to appraise it as such, just as it wouldn’t be to judge Pynchon’s novels as to how light and easy to read they are. It’s the basic rule of good reviewing, I think, that the reviewer must judge the book based on its own terms, not some outside criteria imposed upon it. After a while, I just wasn’t sure that I was the best person to review the book. So I didn’t.
This being said, I did kind of like the book, and it provoked some thoughts that I feel are worth sharing–particularly as this is a web site at least partially concerned with the writing of historical fiction. Here’s my thoughts:
-An antebellum New York murder mystery, 31 Bond Street is a lot of fun to read with interesting characters and a great setting, and it’s highly recommended for those who like more commercial historical fiction. The book follows what was the first real media frenzy over a murder in American history, as well-known socialite and dentist Harvey Burdell was found brutally murdered, stabbed and nearly decapitated, in his home. There are no witnesses, no clues, but everyone assumes that his house mistress, Emma Cunningham, is guilty of the crime. A nice premise for an Eighteenth Century police/legal procedural.
-However, by page 65 we’ve already been told that Emma Cunningham is the “perfect scapegoat” and there’s really no doubt that she’s innocent. It’s just a matter of finding out who really committed the murder, of course, although that is put off until the final pages of the novel in what feels like a tacked on ending. The point of view in the initial scenes sets us up against Emma, she’s the only one with access to the room, she has a motive—but then the flashback scenes work to show her side of the story.
-I wondered throughout, who is telling the story? There are many POVs at work here, one close to Emma, another attached to her attorney, and a formal one detached from any one character. It’s almost too simple how the story is told, the POV changing as any scene requires, and it leaves opportunities for voice untapped, the plot often driftless and unfocused. It seemed to me that the history was followed too closely here–without knowing the actual history well–in this way. Horan sometimes spreads the narrative thin by trying to explain too much of the history at once. I haven’t read much commercial historical fiction, though, so that may be an acceptable digression of the form. It’s a hard balance to strike between character, plot, and giving just the right amount of lush historical setting. It’s something I struggle with a lot, so I don’t mean to be a harsh arbiter here.
-Moreover, there’s an intertwined plot in which Horan builds context for the larger plot, taking us on digressions and day trips to survey real estate. But toward what conclusion is all this work done? It’s often an odd strategy that draws attention away from the things that make the novel interesting. Horan’s strength is in the bigger fantastic scenes, in portraying egotistical cops and reporters, and less so in the small psychological details that might make her historical characters become real. I think these kinds of choices are hard for writers to make. Should she have just stuck to what she was good at and ran with that? Or, should she push harder at the techniques and scenes that she’s weaker at, in order to attempt a well-rounded book? I’m not really sure there’s a right answer to this. Usually I try to put my strengths out in my public work, and keep my weaknesses private, in the office or workshop, until they’re stronger. But, of course, nobody gave me a seven-figure advance to write a first novel, so my toiling in obscurity isn’t really a choice I made either.
-One of the better aspects of the books is Horan’s use of historical artifacts, in the form of period newspaper clippings and lithographs, to frame the story she’s telling. (And I think it was this idea that led to her getting that huge advance, if memory serves.) The use of historical artifact as a framing device, or packaging, is not exactly a new idea. It’s somewhat similar to what Aleksandar Hemon does in The Lazarus Project, although not as well integrated into what Hemon was trying to do with his prose. Printing clips from actual period newspapers seems like something that might be gimmicky, but I like how the material is used in 31 Bond Street, and thought that more could have been made of it. It’s almost a deconstruction of the historical novel, printing a source within the novel’s very text, laying bare the process of inspiration and its associated dramatization. After all, we know that a historical novelist pulls their material from somewhere, through research of source material or by examining photographs or interviews, so why not own the process by allowing the reader to indulge in these artifacts as well, sans the droll, and perhaps odiferous, hours spent in the microfilm room of a public library. After all, isn’t it the thrill of discovery that drives historical fiction, if not all literature? The idea of finding something vital and interesting that has existed under our noses for our entire lives? If yes, then go for it. Share this thrill! This would have made for an awesome multimedia project.
-In sum, 31 Bond Street is a good read, one I don’t feel “guilty” having read, although I think it falls short of being a good book. There are a lot of nice things working here, but, as I mention above a few times, the opportunities didn’t seem to fulfill their potential. Particularly with the packaging, but also in terms of suspense and characterization.
A lot has been made of in the past few years of all the huge advances first-time novelists received in the last decade, money which has since dried up, we’re told. The school of thought is that it’s a very bad thing for a writer, or any artist, to get too rich, too quick. That you need to grow slowly, in obscure poverty, perfecting craft, finding a sure, mature voice, or else you will flame out. (Dani Shapiro wrote an awesome essay on this for the LA Times that you should definitely check out: “A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale.”) There are many examples that bear this out, and I can’t help but wonder if this phenomenon hurt 31 Bond Street in the end. It was such a promoted advance–awarded before the novel was written, of course–that it would be hard for the book to live up to such billing, particularly when written on deadline, as the author’s first book. To me, that just seems like an impossible way to write a book.
I’m a little late with this, but the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was on March 25, and it seems appropriate to post something about it, what with the new labor struggles that have broken out in the upper Midwest. It’s always astonishing to me how bad working conditions in this country were before the labor movement. The fire itself is a monumental tragedy–the worst in New York until 9/11–but it is merely the punctuation of years of abuse and trampling of human dignity.
American Experience aired a great documentary on the fire, which you can see in its entirety on their website. I urge you to watch the full-length version–it’s really very compelling and sickening, in a way that demands your attention and outrage, even 100 years later. Below is a cribbed version.
So, long-time friend Darren Keen (aka The Show is the Rainbow aka Bad Speler aka Touch People) is getting married in a couple weeks. A few weeks after their hippie wedding, Darren and his bride-to-be Lacey will embark on a ten-month, international honeymoon, wherein Darren will tour with his three bands. It’s pretty mind-blowing. The trip includes three U.S. tours, three New Zealand tours, and two European tours–all of them pretty much back-to-back-to-back-to-back…
There’s more information here, on their Facebook page.
You can also volunteer to help Darren and Lacey out on their epic trip via the link above. If you play in a band, or know a promoter, or a good venue, bar, or basement to play at, please put them in touch with Darren. (Darren has played bathrooms before; he’s very open to new ideas.) Or, if you have a couch or spare bed they could use, that’s cool too. Or, if you just want to spread the word about this, please do. This is a DIY tour, so I’m sure they can use all the help they can get.
So word officially came out this week that Sacramento-based independent publisher Flatmancrooked is no more. This is really too bad, as FMC did quite a few innovative projects in their three years of existence. They’re probably best known for the Zero Emission Book Project, what with the front page coverage provided by Poets & Writers. It was a nice bit of success that took on a life of its own, although the excitement seemed to fizzle a bit once the book actually came out, and to not so great reviews. The LAUNCH program was, and is, a good idea, and excelled at hooking talented young writers into FMC’s effective promotions network. Their off-site events at AWPs Denver and Washington DC were very well done and were highlights for me both years. The Literati Gong Show this February was particularly awesome.
You can read Elijah Jenkins’ farewell note here. Here’s the main thrust of it:
You’ve might’ve heard the rumors by now and, unfortunately, the rumors are true. Flatmancrooked is closing its doors. The reasons for this are varied but are largely due to my decision to leave publishing in order to focus on my family and health. Various editors, including our illustrious Senior Editor Deena Drewis and Associate Editor Steve Owen shall remain in the game, producing good work with new entities. Deena will be continuing with a novella press much in keeping with LAUNCH and the novellas we put out at FMC–stay tuned here: nouvellabooks.com; Steve is starting a journal and press called Mixer, which promises all the whimsy and brains of a mixed-genre, experimental endeavor; details TBA, so keep your eyes peeled.
I’m glad Deena is keeping LAUNCH going. It’s a worthwhile venture and something that will fill a need in the marketplace. In my experience at conferences, there always seem to be a really good fiction writer who writes very long stories, and subsequently has trouble getting them published in large part because of their length. Nouvella Books would seem to be perfect for folks like this. So be sure to mention it if the opportunity arises.
Two of my short stories were published by FMC. Impatiens (Pt. 1 & Pt. 2) was featured on their website and in Flatmancrooked’s Anthology of Great Writing Done During an Economic Depression. The anthology is for sale at a deep discount ($3) at their online store. If anyone’s interested, you can find it here. (The saucy cover art is featured above.) A second story, The Housekeeper, was on the website in January and was slated to appear in Flatmancrooked 4, but that isn’t going to happen now. Steve Owen (Mixer Publishing) is trying to keep the anthology together and publish it as Mixer’s first offering. I hope he can work it out, as it was something a lot of us were looking forward to.
I mentioned this on Facebook, but it bears repeating. I feel very blessed to have been able to work with Flatmancrooked these past few years, and am saddened that they won’t be able to continue on. Everyone knows that independent publishing is a particularly difficult endeavor and no excuse is required for hanging it up when the time comes. I wish nothing but the best for Elijah, Deena, and all the others.