Saturday, July 30, 2005

LET'S TALK ABOUT ... Daniel Alarcón

Daniel Alarcón’s
War by Candlelight (2005)

THERE is a new writer in town and his début short-story collection is amazing. And his name is Daniel Alarcón; his book, War by Candlelight (2005). In spare, incisive prose and with much honesty in the telling, he weaves his magic, creating nine edgy stories set mostly in Peru, evoking the beauty and sadness of a vibrant land ravaged by politics and strife.

ALARCÓN Daniel [1977-] Short-story writer, novelist. Born in Lima, Peru, South America. Novel Lost City Radio (2007) Stories War by Candlelight (2005: shortlisted for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction)

Thursday, July 28, 2005


Michael Cunningham’s
Specimen Days (2005)

YOU have got to hand it to Michael Cunningham for writing such entertaining literary fiction. I am already enjoying his Specimen Days (2005) which I think is already among the year’s best and most original books. Clearly, Cunningham is not a safe, predictable writer, although on first looking at it, you'd think Specimen Days bears some structural resemblance to The Hours (1998), his celebrated novelistic homage to and wondrous reimagination of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) (originally titled The Hours). In his new novel, the quintessentially American poet Walt Whitman replaces Virginia Woolf as the unifying thread among three different genres, all set in New York City (“this glittering blighted city”), at three different historical periods. But thankfully the similarities end there. Specimen Days is more of a series of linked novellas than a novel in the conventional sense. The catch is that each novella unfolds as a different genre: a mid-19th-century story drenched in ghostly imagery, a 21st-century urban thriller and a mid-22nd-century science fiction. What can I say, this really is cool. I don't normally read science fiction or fantasy, so the science-fiction element of the novel was a bit jarring for me. But it is just me and has nothing to do with the novelist.

Cunningham’s fourth novel is truly an audacious departure from his family stories and literary triptych of old. And while the triptych or tripartite structure of the book may fascinate the most open-minded of readers, a trilogy of varied genres is sure to baffle many. Though the new novel may not be as engaging as The Hours, it is still a good read by itself. However, I must say that it is a more ambitious and lavish work compared to his past efforts, and to compare both the new book and its predecessor, perhaps inevitable, is unjustified. Despite its structure and bizarre plots, one thing's for sure though, Cunningham is a fine prose stylist with a spare, incisive and lyrical style that is indeed a pleasure to read. What he has crafted is an intellectually provocative and disturbing observation of contemporary society: its ruthlessness and folly and the disintegration of morality and humanity.

A woman sat at the rear, behind a glass counter. She was as wan and worn-looking as her merchandise. Her gray hair hung to her shoulders, and her face was vague, as if someone had drawn the features of a woman onto the front of her head and then tried to erase them. Still, she was queenly, in her ruined way. She sat erect, with a vase full of peacock feathers on her right and an oval mirror on her left, like a minor queen of the underworld, ruler of the lost and inconsequential.
Michael Cunningham, in Specimen Days (2005)

Only at these subdued moments could you truly comprehend that this glittering, blighted city was part of a slumbering continent; a vastness where headlights answered the constellations; a fertile black roll of field and woods dotted by the arctic brightness of gas stations and all-night diners, town after shuttered town strung with streetlights, sparsely attended by the members of the night shifts, the wanderers who scavenged in the dark, the insomniacs with their reading lights, the mothers trying to console colicky babies, the waitresses and gas-pump guys, the bakers and the lunatics.
Michael Cunningham, in Specimen Days (2005)

CUNNINGHAM Michael [1952-] Novelist. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S. NOVELS Specimen Days (2005); The Hours (1998: winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1999 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction; shortlisted for the 2000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award); Flesh and Blood (1995); A Home at the End of the World (1990); Golden States (1984) TRAVEL Land's End: A Walk Through Provincetown (2002)

Saturday, July 23, 2005


WHAT does one look for in a good writer? A delight in words and language is an absolute must. There must unquestionably be humanity in the way the story is told and unfolds. Individuality is a definite criterion. Not forgetting a strong command of narrative to propulse the story forward. I am always excited when I discover a new book by a writer doing wonderful and amazing things with language to create lives and the fictional worlds they inhabit. The fiction that interests me is one that is ambitious for the form it champions, and passionately in love with language and its acrobatics, conjuring images, sounds, smells, colours and feelings. And characters, of course; without engaging characters—characters whom you believe in and care about—fiction falls limp. Here are several books where the writers demonstrate most of these essential qualities that make their books outstanding.

Maps for Lost Lovers (2004) / Nadeem Aslam
Please Don't Come Back from the Moon (2005) / Dean Bakopoulos
Natasha and Other Stories (2004) / David Bezmozgis
This Human Season / Louise Dean
About Grace / Anthony Doerr
The Loss of Leon Meed (2005) / Josh Emmons
Middlesex (2002) / Jeffrey Eugenides
26a (2005) / Diana Evans
Baker Towers (2005) / Jennifer Haigh
The Mermaid Chair (2005) / Sue Monk Kidd
The Ha-Ha (2005) / Dave King
The White Earth (2004) / Andrew McGahan
The Secret Goldfish (2004) / David Means
Half in Love (2002) / Maile Meloy
Responsible Men (2005) / Edward Schwarzschild

ASLAM Nadeem [1966-] Novelist. Born in Gujranwala, Pakistan. NOVELS Maps for Lost Lovers (2004: winner of the 2005 Kiriyama Prize for Fiction and the 2004 Encore Award for the Best Second Novel); Season of the Rainbirds (1993: winner of a 1994 Betty Trask Award; shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award)

BAKOPOULOS Dean [1975-] Novelist. Born in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, U.S. NOVEL Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon (2005)

BEZMOZGIS David [1973-] Short-story writer. Born in Riga, Latvia. STORIES Natasha and Other Stories (2004: shortlisted for the 2004 Guardian First Book Award, the 2004 Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the 2004 Los Angeles Times/Art Seidenbaum Prize for First Fiction)

DEAN Louise [1970-] Novelist. Born in Hastings, East Sussex, England. NOVELS This Human Season (2005); Becoming Strangers (2004: winner of the 2004 Betty Trask Prize for Best First Novel; longlisted for the 2004 Guardian First Book Award and the 2004 Booker Prize for Fiction)

DOERR Anthony [1973-] Short-story writer, novelist. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. NOVEL About Grace (2004) STORIES The Shell Collector (2002)

EMMONS Josh [1973-] Novelist. Born in Bangkok, Thailand. NOVEL The Loss of Leon Meed (2005)

EUGENIDES Jeffrey [1960-] Novelist. Born in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. NOVELS Middlesex (2002: winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; shortlisted for the 2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award); The Virgin Suicides (1993: winner of the 1993 Whiting Writers Award for Fiction)

EVANS Diana [1972-] Novelist. Born in London, England. NOVEL 26a (2005: winner of the 2005 Orange Award for New Writers and the 2005 Betty Trask Award for First Novel; longlisted for the 2005 Guardian First Book Award)

HAIGH Jennifer [1968-] Novelist. Born in Barnesboro, Pennsylvania, U.S. NOVELS Baker Towers (2005); Mrs. Kimble (2003: winner of the 2003 PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction)

MONK KIDD Sue [195X-] Novelist. Born Sue Monk in Sylvester, Georgia, U.S. NOVELS The Mermaid Chair (2005); The Secret Life of Bees (2002) SPIRITUAL MEMOIRS The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine (1996); When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions (1990); Love’s Hidden Blessings: God Can Touch Your Life When You Least Expect It (1990); God’s Joyful Surprise: Finding Yourself Loved (1988)

KING Dave [1955-] Novelist, poet. Born in Meridien, Connecticut, U.S. NOVEL The Ha-Ha (2005)

McGAHAN Andrew [1966-] Novelist. Born in Dalby, Queensland, Australia. NOVELS The White Earth (2004: winner of the 2004 Age Fiction Prize and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region, and the 2005 Miles Franklin Award for Fiction; shortlisted for the 2004 Queensland Premier's Literary Award for Fiction); Last Drinks (2001: shortlisted for the 2000 Age Book of the Year); 1988 (1995); Praise (1992: winner of the 1991 The Australian/Vogel Award)

MEANS David [1962-] Short-story writer. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan. STORIES The Secret Goldfish (2004); Assorted Fire Events (2000: winner of the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a finalist for the 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction); A Quick Kiss of Redemption and Other Stories (1991)

MELOY Maile [1972-] Short-story writer, novelist. Born in Helena, Montana, U.S. NOVEL Liars and Saints (2003: shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction) STORIES Half in Love (2002)

SCHWARZSCHILD Edward [1965-] Novelist, short-story writer. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. NOVEL Responsible Men (2005)