|Event #139: SOFT but HARD
LAST WEEK's EDITION
In terms of beauty, there's an argument to be made that Julia Alvarez just might be the most comely literary author in today's writing world. Judging by the photograph on her new collection of essays, she's movie-star pretty.
Of course, physical attributes have nothing to do with writing talent, and the feminists who read this might complain that I'd probably never start a column by commenting on the good looks of a certain male author. Is there a connection between physical appearance and the ability to create sentences of sustaining power and accessibility? Maybe it's worth looking into. Would research grants be available for such a project?
Think of the great women writers. How many were Cindy Crawford look-alikes? Emily Dickinson's photo could be used as an illustration of homeliness. Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favorite writers, won't be found gracing the centerfold of Playboy anytime soon.
Anyway, Julia Alvarez has created a place for herself in the list of promising and accomplished novelists. Her three novels captured critical raves and sold well enough to allow publication of "Something to Declare" (Algonquin, $20.95). This beautifully written book contains biographical details of her family and her sudden exile from her native Dominican Republic at age ten. Her father had participated in the failed coup against dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1960. He quickly moved his family to New York, setting up a medical practice in The Bronx. For Julia, her mother and three sisters, it meant the beginning of a process of assimilation.
"Something to Declare" describes in charming anecdotes and wry observations the journey toward becoming an American. Her novels ("How the Garcia Girls Lost Their accents," its sequel "Yo" and last year's "In the Time of the Butterflies") dealt with her ties to both nations. Alvarez has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and her work has been translated into nine languages.
The new essays also include excellent advice to aspiring writers, much in the tradition of Anne Lamott's popular "Bird by Bird." Alvarez describes how she feared her family would disown her after the first novel came out, how a trip back to the Dominican Republic changed her into a hyphenated American, and made her writing straddle those two nations.
She has created her own Ten Commandments of Writing, which include quotations from Chekhov, the Bible, Rainer Maria Rilke, Samuel Johnson, and Toni Morrison. And she answers that most important of questions: does writing matter? It's how she "learned to see with vision and perplexity and honesty and continue to learn to see," she says.
Julia Alvarez is one of the most exciting new writers to appear in the past decade. "Something to Declare" will make you want to return, or visit for the first time, the special world of her three novels.
"Plain and Normal"--The Struggle
James Wilcox writes comic novels, seven so far, that entrance critics who heap praise on him. My first encounter with the world of Wilcox is his latest comic performance, "Plain and Normal" (Little, Brown, $24).
The protagonist in this quirky little extravaganza is Severinus Lloyd Norris, who's always called Mr. Norris by the author. The story follows Mr. Norris in his quest to be left alone. He's a gay man who doesn't become involved in sex, drab, overworked, fat, and continuously harassed by his ex-wife, while he stills lives with her after the divorce.
This is supposedly the setup for riotous comedic events. Despite the laudatory reviews, "Plain and Normal" seemed all too plain, but hardly normal, to this reader. Piling on eccentric characters doesn't necessarily translate into hilarity. Dealing with the dregs of humanity is sobering and slightly depressing. Wilcox, who strings together words with aplomb, doesn't really manage to pull off comedy in the midst of unhappiness.
Out of Their Element
Stella Suberman was born in Tennessee but grew up in New York and Miami. Now retired after a career as a publicist and book critic, she has published her first book. The charming and crafty "The Jew Store" (Algonquin, $19.95) makes the reader regret that she didn't launch her literary career until relatively late in life.
The book describes growing up in small town America in the 1920s, when Suberman's parents moved to a tiny town in northwest Tennessee to establish Brown's Low-Priced Store. That business soon gained the title from its customers of "The Jew Store." As the youngest daughter of Aaron Bronson (he changed his surname from the less-acceptable Bronstein), Stella reports on his optimism about launching a new life in the South. Her mother feared anti-Semitism and wondered about raising the children in a tiny town which was so typically southern, a town in which blacks suffered from poverty and received threats from the Ku Klux Klan. One of the most vivid portraits is that of Brookie Simmons, a white woman who gave the Bronsons a home and fought to abolish child labor in a town factory.
"The Jew Store" received its name from Concordia's townspeople, not necessarily derogatory but rather the convention of the time. As Suberman points out, "They didn't know about political correctness in those days--that was just what it was called."
The book covers her experiences from her birth in Concordia in 1922 to 1933, when the family moved back to New York, then later to Miami. "The Jew Store" has been a major success, she says, because it reminds people "of their own family stories and a time they like to remember."
Bob Powers was born on his grandparents' dairy farm outside the southern community of Walton, Ky., population 800, and spent much of his childhood in the hills of West Virginia. He also writes the "Powerssound" column of music reviews for G21.
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