Hello there! Thanks for finding your way through cyber-space to the homepage of writer Alan Ackmann. I will be updating content regularly, so check back often. In the meantime, enjoy!
Hello there! Thanks for finding your way through cyber-space to the homepage of writer Alan Ackmann. I will be updating content regularly, so check back often. In the meantime, enjoy!
I’m a bit late to the party in profiling Bloodroot by Amy Greene (it came out about a year ago to great acclaim, was featured in Entertainment Weekly and many other venues, and has been routinely applauded on best-debut and best-of-the-year lists) but I wanted to add my voice to the chorus anyway—because I enjoyed Bloodroot very, very much.
First, Bloodroot is like very few things I’ve read. Set in the mountains of Tennessee, it is exotic in the best sense of the word—a lush environment full of captivating details and authentic characters that, despite their initial foreignness, feel natural and accessible, unforced. A large part of this, no doubt, is Greene’s own background—she hails from Tennessee, and writes of this world with ease and authority, so details of scene and language roll out naturally, resulting in passages like this one, from early in the book:
It doesn’t take as much to poison a horse as people think. You just have to know what to feed one. A few oleander leaves, a little sorghum grass, a bit of yellow star thistle and a horse can choke faster than the vet can get there. Tie your horse to a black locust or a chokeberry tree and it could be dead within minutes. Bloodroot is dangerous to horses too. We have a carpet of it growing down the side of our mountain when springtime comes, thriving under the shady tree canopy high above our house. Daddy says such a lush stand is rare these days…Bloodroot can be harvested in fall but the leaves have died back, so it’s harder to know where the plants are. That’s why we always make the trip in early spring, when the flowers are spread across the slope like the train of a wedding gown.
Greene never writes as an outsider, and so reveals her subject’s grace.
Plotwise, Bloodroot is primarily the story of Myra Odom, who grew up on Bloodroot Mountain and eventually abandons it for town and Johnny Odom—as well as the stormy, ultimately destructive love that blooms between them. We see the passionate and sometimes literally torturous parts of Johnny and Myra’s lives, but the expansiveness of Bloodroot also lets us see Myra’s childhood, the aftermath of her life with Johnny, and its consequences on her two children. Amidst all this, there is mystery: until the end of the book, the exact nature of Johnny and Myra’s relationship—and how it ended—is unclear. Johnny has disappeared, and Myra is implicated. Tension in Bloodroot is generated by the systematic exploration of Myra’s character, and the limitations of the other characters to know her.
Bloodroot is also a triumph of point of view, and how it can develop tension in a plot. Bloodroot is divided into multiple sections, each of which features Myra’s story through the eyes of one or more of the main characters. Though each voice is spellbinding in its own right, the sequence of perspectives serves to initially keep Myra at a distance—allowing the reader to never fully trust or understand her, almost yearn for her—and then to bring her close. By the end, where Johnny Odom is given his own say, a combination of these perspectives has been achieved, so that Myra seems at once both known and unknown, clear and mysterious and lovely.
The characters in Bloodroot are passionate and moving, bearing their struggles with dignity and pain. Their lives are hard, and more than once throughout the book I felt emotionally devastated as one more tragedy in a seemingly endless thread threatened to unravel them. Saying more about the book, I think, would wreck what made it magical, or ruin the most powerful moments for someone approaching the book for the first time. So I’ll leave it at this: Bloodroot is fantastic. Read it, by all means, read it.
I picked up Roddy Doyle’s The Deportees at San Francisco’s recent MLA convention because one of the stories had been published in the same edition of McSweeney’s as a story of mine, and I’d been curious about Doyle ever since (though I hadn’t read any more of his work until now). And while some stories, unavoidably, were better than others, I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed.
First of all, one of the book’s advantages is that the stories are so clearly centered on a unified theme: the recent influx of foreigners into Irish society. The project began as an observation that, sometime in the nineties, Ireland had radically changed.
What had previously been an economically downtrodden afterthought of Europe, a place where “more people left …than were born [there]”, and which attracted only scattered immigrants, many of whom for questionable purposes, had become “one of the wealthiest countries in Europe”, full of romanticized (and romanticizing) immigrants who’d watched Riverdance, seen photos of the pretty hills, and come up to see what the fuss was about. Doyle’s new Ireland is a place of cultural and racial tensions where “one out of every ten people living in Ireland wasn’t born [there]”. So Doyle started with a simple premise: write stories that all begin when someone who was born in Ireland meets someone who wasn’t, and then watch the cultures clash and realign.
There are several variations on this theme. In “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner”, a hard-working Irish father confronts his own latent racism when his daughter brings home a Nigerian boyfriend. In “57% Irish”, a scientist devises a governmental test to quantifiably measure something as indefinably innate as Irish nationalism. In “I Understand”, an illegal Polish immigrant deals with being shaken down and exploited by underground drug dealers who threaten to report him to the authorities. The stories range widely in terms of tone and quality, but are best when the characters confront the limitations of their own capabilities to understand—although they occasionally suffer from Doyle’s desire to force them into tolerance. But almost all interactions are at least somewhat combustible and thought-provoking.
The most useful part of the book, from a craft study perspective, comes from the context under which these stories were first written. Although McSweeney’s and other journals later reprinted them in their entirety, each work originally appeared as 800 word monthly installments in Metro Eireann, a Dublin periodical. Doyle wrote many of the stories on the fly, and claims to have frequently not known how a story would end even as previous installments were being published. This working without a net creates stories that are occasionally uneven; in Doyle’s words “characters [sometimes] disappear, because I forgot about them. Questions are asked and, sometimes, not quite answered.” There are also occasionally redundant descriptions, as Doyle takes a minute at the beginning of a new installment to recap past episodes. This format also, however, creates a fantastic tutorial on the use of tension. The artistic constraints of Doyle’s format force him to create a moment of crisis or reversal every 800 words (at most), and this crisis has to be striking enough to make readers willing to come back after waiting a month. When read together, the installments become excellent lessons in how to tell a lengthy, unified story while simultaneously compelling a reader to wonder what will happen next on a moment-by-moment basis. In a way, this is story-telling stripped to the bones. Doyle can rely on no lengthy descriptions, no interior monologues, and no dawdling exposition—each of these take up space, and space is at a premium. So he relies only on swift characterization and compelling scenes—and the results are often as entertaining as a brisk, lively stage play.
For the curious, the story published in what I’ve playfully come to think of as “my” issue of McSweeney’s was “New Boy”. I liked it well enough when I first read it, but after reading The Deportees I’d rank “New Boy” near the bottom of my favorite stories from the collection. That’s a mild indictment of the story, of course, but I hope it’s more of an endorsement of the book.
I just got back from AWP (okay, back is a strong word considering it was located here in Chicago) and it was just as energizing, intimidating, desperate, and comforting as usual. I’ll post specific responses to panels and whatnot over the next few days, but here’s a reflective tidbit to get you started:
What more can I say? I met Peggy (a poet) this weekend through a mutual friend, and on numerous occasions she was gracious, warm-hearted, and seemed to take genuine delight in introducing people in her life to one another. We had dinner at Pegasus on Friday night with a whole crew of other writers and editors, and the embarrassing buffet of sumptuous Greek food was enough to bond anyone. In addition to being a kind woman, though, Peggy is also a great poet. I highly encourage you to visit her website and check out her work. While you’re at it, why not order a book or two?
I’ll be posting additional updates/insights in the next few days, but if you simply can’t wait you check out some guest dispatches I did for therumpus.net. They’re a fun little e-zine of perceptive people, and very much worth your time.
I’ll post more updates later this week. Enjoy!
This Side of Brightness is one of the most lyrically gorgeous novels I’ve read in quite some time, with quietly lovely and delicate sentences and descriptions that reveal their subjects’ inherent dignity and grace, whether those subjects are 1920s “sandhogs” (diggers who first built the New York City subway tunnels) or the modern day homeless residing in those same tunnels. As that last sentence might suggest, Brightness follows two stories: one is that of Nathan Walker, bonded with his fellow sandhogs for life by a spectacular accident that occurs in the novels early pages; the other is that of Treefrog, who has now made a home for himself in the tunnels that Nathan helped dig. I can’t talk much about either story without giving away plot points, but suffice it to say that the material seems well-suited to McCann’s gifts as a writer, and that his eye for isolated spots of beauty in otherwise rugged worlds is put to very good use—particularly in Treefrog’s sections.
The novel has flaws, of course: it follows the two stories parallel for two-thirds of the book, and when the sandhogs’ story eventually intersects with the tunnel dwellers’ the collision is predictable, and not entirely effective. The twin storylines also create a peculiar imbalance in the pacing. Nathan’s sections, spanning seventy years, feel rushed occasionally, while Treefrog’s sections, spanning slightly over a week, often feel needlessly elongated, as McCann loses himself in the minutia of Treefrog’s world at the expense of his narrative momentum. The conflict in Treefrog’s section is also much less gripping than in Nathan’s, and weighting them equally seems like a mistake. McCann’s eye for artistic detail, however, sustains the choice. Great swaths of time in Nathan’s portions are accented by crystal clear details and scenes which slow the exposition, while Treefrog’s portions are given remarkable precision and authenticity, which (most of the time) makes them seem pristine rather than plodding. Even with the structural imbalance, therefore, I would recommend the book. If nothing else, McCann illuminates a world of New York that is often oversimplified or disregarded, giving it life and resonance. The novel has stirrings of a social consciousness that are frequently absent in contemporary fiction, but you never sense McCann exploiting or condescending to his subjects. It is a novel, to borrow a phrase from The Boston Globe, “resplendent with dignity”, and for that reason alone it merits a look.
In a frenzy of eleventh hour book-buying at December’s MLA convention (“All paperbacks three dollars! Everything must go!”) I picked up The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders, which became my book of choice for the long flight back to Chicago. I’d read Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation, but this was my—and his—first experience with a book of essays. The Braindead Megaphone can be loosely divided into three types of essays: discussions of literature (Saunders writes about Slaughterhouse Five, Huckleberry Finn, Donald Barthelme’s “The School”, and even Johnny Tremain), travel writing (see Saunders go to Dubai, England, the Mexico/America border, and Nepal—often generously funded by GQ magazine!), and political satires.
Of these three, the satires were the least engaging—often hinging upon devices like a pseudo-fictional explorations of “people reluctant to kill for an abstraction” (the most troubling of the new ideological cultures Saunders sees emerging as national borders become more malleable) and fictional proclamations from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When Saunders writes as a persona, the effect is rarely as engaging as his authentic voice.
The literary essays and travel pieces, though, were first rate. The literary essays, in addition to being worthwhile explications, often emphasize what a particular piece/writer contributed to Saunders’ development as a writer/person, which gives them resonance. They are not dry analyses, but rather explorations about what writing can mean or do, when conditions are right. The real pearls, however, are in the travel writing. “The New Mecca” describes a trip to Dubai, Arab Emirates, and is one of the best essays I’ve read in quite some time—a heady mix of thought-provoking, touching, and funny. “The Great Divider,” which focuses on human dilemmas along the Mexican/American border, is similarly dense, an intricate, subtle portrait. A handful of essays defy these classifications, but these outliers struck me as weaker, with the worst being a dreadful essay from the POV of a dog who asks his master to stop humping on the kitchen table. It’s only a few pages, but I’d just skip it. I wouldn’t skip The Braindead Megaphone, however—particularly if you enjoy the rest of Saunders’ work. Most essays are entertaining and often moving, and the revealing glimpses of what Saunders values in and life in literature add a pleasant texture to the rest of his writing.
Like many of you, I imagine, I was very saddened by today’s announcement of Michael Crichton’s passing away of cancer at age 66. I first encountered Crichton’s books when I was in junior high, and my English teacher told me about Jurassic Park (this would have been in 1993, well before the movie). I found a copy of the book later that evening on my Dad’s bookshelf, which was itself enough to make me intrigued—he wasn’t the biggest reader, at least not of fiction. So I started reading before bed that night, and by three a.m. that morning, I was hooked…and not just for the night.
I’d always been a recreational reader, but that experience—at about twelve-years old—was the first time my heart actually pounded as a result of reading a book. I was amazed at the imagination, the tension, and the clarity. The science was fascinating, but not as much as the sense that an entirely new and vivid world had been created, yet was still akin to our own. Over the next six months, I read Sphere, The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Travels, The Great Train Robbery, and Five Patients. My first major writing project—a full length play adaptation of The Terminal Man that was probably 80% plagiarized dialog from the book—was completed about a year later, and although I literally never showed it to anyone but my mom I remember being too excited to eat dinner one night because I just so close to being finished. Over the course of that year, I discovered the joy not only of reading but of writing.
As often happens, one writer gave way to another. Crichton begat Stephen King, who begat Dean Koontz, and these gave way to English class love affairs with John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut. Six years after that first secretive three a.m. reading binge (the first of many, over the years) I enrolled as a Writing major my freshman year of college, and followed that all the way to graduate school and my current job as a college instructor. I haven’t read Crichton’s most recent books (I stopped after The Lost World) but I’m still understandably sentimental about those early, exciting times. In fact, though my areas of study and my material as a writer have come a long way in the intervening fifteen years, you can still trace the trajectory of my life as a writer directly back to that initial experience.
On my shelf at home, near Harry Crews and Anton Chekov, is that old copy of Jurassic Park I pilfered from my Dad’s library. It’s missing its cover, its pages have yellowed, and there are more creases on its spine than on any other book I own, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to get rid of it. And I’m very glad for that… because it just got a lot more precious to me.
My condolences to Crichton’s family. May he rest in peace.
I’m working on a novel right now dealing heavily with music, and was originally attracted to Louise Erdrich’s The Master Butcher’s Singing Club based on its content–I wanted to see how another writer handled music, in both its description and technical aspects. I quickly discovered, however, that MBSC was only about music on the surface; it is actually a multi-generational family saga. The novel takes place in a developing North Dakota town between the two world wars, following Fidelis Waldvogel and his four sons as they move through their lives with Delphine Watzka, the strong, progressive heroine who befriends the boys’ mother. I also discovered, quickly, that MBSC was fantastic, a fact that many other people already seemed to know. For example, while I was carrying MBSC around the AP English reading, matronly high school teachers kept grabbing me enthusiastically, even violently, by the arm and exclaiming, “Isn’t it incredible?!? I thought it was INCREDIBLE!!!” I nodded in agreement and self-preservation, but now my accolades are more sincere.
The story in MBSC is both grand and intimate, creating moments as periodically pulse-pounding as they are emotionally dense. The characters–Delphine especially–are complicated and rich, their beauty conveyed by lush, supple prose. Furthermore, the book is remarkably deft in its handling of time; Erdrich can devote pages to an instant in the character’s mind, and then propel time forward for years in the very next chapter—and if that sounds disorienting, I assure you it’s not. I’ve read some books recently that had very little effect on me, and so it was fantastic to be moved, multiple times, to chills or tears. So while the book is not perfect (a great deal of early attention is devoted to episodes with only scant influence on the overall plot, and Delphine enters a kind of emotional stasis towards the beginning of the third act, which makes the narrative sag) there is much more to applaud here than to nitpick. I liked the book so much, in fact, that I’ll put it in a course someday.
In the meantime, the book fulfilled its purpose of teaching me something about writing music, in that it mostly doesn’t write about music. The singing club (which was founded by Fidelis, a butcher, and attracts many of the men in town) is predominantly an artistic motif and occasional plot device, providing unity between the three decades and bringing together otherwise separate characters. It never takes center stage until the end, however, when it becomes an almost –almost– heavy-handed metaphor. Otherwise, the singing is in the background, which lets Erdrich put appropriate attention on other elements of the story. Songs are named, but described only when scene or characterization merits the attention—and even then such description wears thin surprisingly quickly. Also, nowhere were there any theoretical or technical discussions of music, which makes sense, based both on the character’s level of actual knowledge and on the fact that many readers find that kind of thing tiresome. Erdrich’s restraint in this respect was a useful reminder. So the book, without question, provides some helpful bits of instruction—although that isn’t why I recommend it. I recommend it because, for the first time in a while, a book reminded me why I wanted to be a writer. That’s some of the highest praise I can offer.
Fasten your seatbelts, folks: it’s science time. As a writer, I’ve long been familiar with synesthesia as a literary device, but not so much a literal phenomenon. That was before I saw a Discovery Channel documentary on literal synesthesia a few days ago. Simply put, literal synesthesia occurs when the experience of one kind of sensory perception (such as sound) triggers the simultaneous experience of another kind of sensory perception (such as taste). In a way, two senses become inextricably linked to one another, and EKGs have actually mapped the different areas of the brain firing despite the lack of any direct stimulation—the experience of a smell triggers the node for a color, for example. Over the course of the program, they presented people who could taste different flavors on hearing certain words, or who saw different colors for different letters, or who saw—actually saw—grids of numbers arranged in three dimensional space when doing math. It’s not a new thing evidently (as many as 1 in 23 people have some form of the condition) but as I was watching the program I was hit with an overwhelming sense of: “how have I never heard of this before?”
It was, of course, fascinating. My wife was born without a sense of smell, and I’ve always found that literary synesthesia was one of the most effective ways of communicating what things smell like, however clumsily. It was therefore fun to watch her watch the program, especially the part about the blind man—that’s blind man—who sees flashes of color when he hears numbers or words that fit into a sequence (days of the week, for example). At that point in the program, my wife got this adorable glimmer of hope that one day a random synaptic misfire triggered by, say, a bagel might allow her to really know what something smells like. Alas, we did not pick up any tips on how to make that happen.
Another interesting part of the program talked about the possible connection between synesthesia and creativity. Since the root of the condition involves an unusual connection between portions of the brain usually kept separate, some scientists believe that synesthetes are inherently more creative. Creativity, as these scientists present it, is all about unanticipated connections—whether on global levels, like the intersection of plot points in storytelling, or on local levels, such as in metaphors. It’s possible, these scientists claim, that the unusually dense neural pathways of a synesthete’s brain make them more prone to such connections, and thus more creative. I looked into it, and several famous artists are indeed reported to have been synesthetes, including jazz legend Duke Ellington and composer Franz Liszt, who (thrillingly, I think) is reported to have seen music as color, saying enigmatic things to orchestras like “A little more blue, please!”. My favorite example of a synesthete is Vladimir Nabokov, who has this to say about the condition in his autobiography Speak, Memory:
[it is] a fine case of colored hearing. Perhaps ‘hearing’ is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag bag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl. Adjacent tints do not merge, and diphthongs do not have special colors of their own, unless represented by a single character in some other language (thus the fluffy-gray, three-stemmed Russian letter that stands for sh, a letter as old as the rushes of the Nile, influences its English representation)…In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e’s and i’s, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u, whose alphabetical value I can express only by ‘brassy with an olive sheen.’ In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h. Finally, among the reds, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with ‘Rose Quartz’ in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color.
That’s right everyone: just when you’ve reconciled yourself to the idea that you’ll never be able to do the things with words that Vladmir Nabokov can do, he lets it slip that his library comes in living color while yours is still stuck in the fifties. Jerk.
If you want to find out more, here’s a link to the American Synesthesia Association. Happy browsing!
For the second year in a row, I am spending time in Daytona Beach, Florida grading the AP English Language exam with around 900 distant friends and colleagues. This year, we’ve got around 300,000 essays to grade (gulp) and about one week to do it. It’s the largest volume of essays AP has ever contended with, but we’ve compensated with a higher percentage increase of raters this year, which means we should hopefully be finished in time to enjoy the sand, racing nostalgia, and (from the perspective of this jaded Chicagoan) comically cheap beer.
The AP Reading, of course, is actually beneficial in ways that have nothing to do with inexpensive booze. It is a chance to reconnect with old friends from grad school, and make some new ones from other colleges and universities. Additionally, as a freshman comp instructor, it provides a good opportunity to chat with high school instructors, who will no doubt be sending me some of their students in a year or so. That kind of perspective is quite valuable in the world of first-year writing, as is the appreciation for the wide range of skill levels that actually take the AP exam nationwide. And they come in all shapes and skill levels, I have to say.
Before heading out to the beach, however, I’d like to share this delicious new bit of counterculture: evidently, some student somewhere got it in his head that students should write “THIS IS SPARTA!!!” in the interior of their AP essays, so that raters would keep encountering the randomly inserted phrase and have no idea what was going on. Ha-ha! Those wacky student antics sure do cause us to laugh with delight, yes sir! Well . . . I find it entertaining anyway. But the trend was widespread enough that scoring leaders had to make an announcement saying that raters should neither reward nor penalize the phrase. In the first day of grading, I’ve already found one Sparta reference and my table has already found five.
In the interest of honesty . . . if I were an high school AP student I totally would have worked in “This is Sparta.” So check back at the end of the week for the final tally, as well as other notes from the week. It should be fun.