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Book News for Tuesday, March 31, 2009

  • For Whom the Rooster Crows: This is it — the final round of the 2009 Tournament of Books!

    It all comes down to this: Tom Piazza's City of Refuge vs. Toni Morrison's A Mercy.

    Perhaps it's worth noting the significance that, in the first year of Obama's historic presidency, both Rooster contenders deal with the issue of race in America — one in a historic context (that nonetheless feels sadly contemporary), and the other in a modern context that also grabs at the issue of class.

    One might wonder if Americans, collectively, are finally ready to start grappling with an issue so huge and so troubling that it can be said, with no exaggeration, to have defined our entire national identity — for better and, most certainly, for worse.

    Or maybe it's just a wild coincidence.

    All of the judges get to weigh in on the final round. Their opinions are definitely interesting, and well worth reading. (And, no, I won't give away who won.)

    Yes, Yours Truly weighed in, as well — with what can charitably be called a minority dissenting opinion. Even the judges who voted for A Mercy over City of Refuge praised Piazza's novel to the rafters.

    On the other hand, I couldn't shake some real problems I had with the depiction of the characters in the Ninth Ward. As I noted in the TOB comments after Piazza invited me to "come down to New Orleans one of these days...and listen to the way people actually talk":

    [M]y problem isn't with the way people "actually" speak, but the way a white writer chooses to depict that dialect. The Ninth Ward characters in City of Refuge speak very phonetically — not just with "gotta" but "gotsa" — while the white characters speak perfect Queen's English, never so much as dropping the "g" in an "-ing" ending.

    My problem wasn't just the phonetic dialogue, but also the sense of Piazza as journalist, watching through a window and jotting down notes on behavior without really climbing inside his black characters. I wrestled with these issues on almost every single page of the novel, staring at one page for an hour or two while a circuitous debate raged in my head.

    Piazza seems to really "get" the upper-middle-class white characters, to write in a manner that explores their psychology and gets down to the marrow (even if said marrow starts out as an overly familiar case of middle-class suburban malaise). The lower-class black characters, however, are written about, at a slight distance, as though Piazza couldn't quite penetrate the skin.

    But doesn't he deserve points for trying?

    Maybe — but aren't there any number of talented African-American writers who could have nailed these lives (and the voices they use) more intimately?

    Wait one hot minute — are you truly prepared to segregate writers like this? Whites can only write about whites, men can only write about men, straight people can't write gay characters..?

    I'm definitely not comfortable with that — but I'm just as uncomfortable with a white writer depicting "street" voices so phonetically. It's one thing to capture the slang, but it's another thing entirely to depict the dialect in every single syllable.

    But if that's what you hear, isn't that what you should write?

    Is it, though? White America has a troubling history (to say the least) with "authentically depicting" the way it hears black voices. Wouldn't it have been enough for Piazza to merely suggest the dialect in a more subtle way?

    (It should be noted that the New Orleans accent is a strong one regardless of race, yet the white characters' dialogue is oddly missing that tang.)

    How is this any different from the way white writers like Richard Price and David Simon depict street culture in The Wire, which is one of your all-time favorite shows?

    I guess the main difference is, the dialogue in The Wire is spoken by flesh-and-blood actors, so it's at least vetted through someone who, presumably, would have the freedom to stop and say, "Come on, nobody talks like this! 'Dinkin flicka' is not real slang!"

    ÷ ÷ ÷

    What troubled me almost as much, I suppose, is feeling like I'm on Piazza's side — I share his outrage at the catastrophe of Katrina (not the hurricane, but the man-made disaster that followed), and I'm glad to have a novelist exploring this territory. It didn't work for me, personally, but that by no means makes it a bad book.

    I confess, I can't help feeling like the idiot in the room — hey, John Hodgman didn't have a problem with it, so what the hell's my friggin' damage? — but I would have been remiss if I didn't pipe up with my reservations.

    And, with that said, I'll just pipe down now.

  • Big Wheel Keep On Turnin': The final volume of the late Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series is slated to go on sale in November. However, I must confess that I don't really understand what Publishers Weekly is saying here:

    The Gathering Storm, book 12 of the Wheel of Time series — and the first of three volumes that will make up A Memory of Light — will go on sale November 3. A Memory of Light, itself a three-volume work, is partially written by Jordan and was completed by Brandon Sanderson, and will be released over a two-year period.

    Wait, so... if Memory is a three-volume work, and Gathering is just the first volume of it, doesn't that mean there are two more books to come in the series?

    Am I dense? Has my brain just eaten itself alive? (Quite possibly; see long rant above.)

  • Southern Goth Chick: Over on NPR, blogger extraordinaire Maud Newton looks at Brad Gooch's biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, which evidently has something to do with a writer named Flannery.

    I love secrets, and biographies of my literary heroes are hard to resist. Thus did I succumb to temptation with Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, a chronicle of the brief life of one of this country's finest short-story writers. In its painstaking honesty, the book is both a great gift and a curse to O'Connor's fans.

    I'm sure Flannery herself would agree, a good literary biography is hard to find.

Book News Round-up:

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Brockman is the head writer for the daily Book News posts on the Powells.com blog. In his free time he's hard at work on his fictional memoir, which changes titles daily.

The views and commentary posted by Brockman are entirely his own, and are not representative of the whole of Powell's Books, its employees, or any sane human being.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. City of Refuge: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  2. A Mercy: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $6.95
  3. Knife of Dreams:Wheel of Time #11
    Used Hardcover $7.95

  4. The Believers: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $4.95

  5. Captain Freedom: A Superhero's Quest...
    Used Trade Paper $3.50

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