Wednesday, September 20, 2017


The Refugees

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I noticed on the book's cover that author Viet Thanh Nguyen was the recipient of a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Sympathizer. I hesitated, thinking maybe I ought to start with that one, but the book in my hands, The Refugees, promised short stories written over the past twenty years, and I wanted to see how the author's style might have changed over time. 

For Readers: 
Once I began to read, it quickly became apparent that Nguyen has a firm grip on his craft. It's easy to become immersed in his stories, and easy to get pulled into the whole Vietnam thing; to my own memories of the war and its aftermath—boat people and places of refuge like Hawaii's Little Saigon. 

It turns out my perceptions were lacking, however. There actually isn't a place where a person who has lost his homeland can ever again feel part of the mainstream. It's a fact driven home in the eight touching stories that portray the lives of the refugees who fled Vietnam.

The stories are rich with vivid and complicated characters and situations that will break your heart with complexity and inevitability. Perhaps my favorite story is, “I'd Love You to Want Me,” about an old Vietnamese couple living in America. The husband has developed dementia to the point that he began to confuse his wife’s name with that of a lover he knew pre-war. He's not the sort of man to torment his wife, so it's only possible for her to lay blame on the circumstances that brought them together. Her devotion to her husband is unfaltering, even as her heart is breaking and even as she struggles to physically handle the work involved in being his caretaker.

The Refugees is a fine study on the aftermath of war, a book I'd recommend to anyone.
Reviewed by Sue Ellis.

Published by Grove Atlantic
ISBN 978-0--8021-2639-9
Buy it here: The Refugees, Amazon

For Writers:
The author was born in Vietnam and raised in America, and he obviously writes what he knows. His prose is so intelligently done, so perceptive and unobtrusively insistent that we get his viewpoint. That's where his strength lies, I think, in his humanity and capability to portray real people under duress.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Guest Author Mithran Somasundrum on Characterization

"Action is character," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a notebook, meaning that showing a person's actions, and more importantly his choices, is the clearest way to delineate his personality. But there is a distinction between character and characterization. It's one thing to make a man seem brave, petty or violent. It's something else to make him seem real. The best short description of characterization I've ever found was a quote on the back of a novel whose title and author I can't even remember. While they've gone out of my mind, the quote, by V. S. Pritchett, remains.  "[Author X]," he wrote, "knows the fantasy lives of his characters." 

When great writers look at the works of others, they often end up discussing themselves; and Pritchett's statement could just as easily have been a description of, and an explanation for, the vitality and life in his own work. Throughout the whole of his long writing career, you feel Pritchett had a direct line to the cinema playing behind his characters' eyes.  The cinema where they were the heroes and happiness unfolded.

While we judge the people we meet in fiction by their decisions, we believe in them largely because of what comes out of their mouths. Which ties good characterization inextricably into the art of writing good dialogue. "Good" doesn't necessarily mean clever or long. "You killed Miles and you're going over for it," is good because it's true to Sam Spade's hard-headed, uncomplicated view of his life. However, given that the main purpose of the pages of a novel—any novel—is to make you keep turning them, dialogue needs to be more than just true.  It needs to be interesting. 

The fuller section of The Maltese Falcon that I've just quoted is,

"I don't care who loves who. I'm not going to play the sap for you. I won't walk in Thursby's and who knows who else's footsteps. You killed Miles and you're going over for it."

This has a great rhythm and power, without moving outside the vocabulary Spade would use or the kind of ideas he’d express. Another writer of great hyper-real dialogue is Saul Bellow. His characters use ordinary idioms and phrases, but often at such a pitch of emotion their thoughts go tumbling into each other. From The Victim, when Leventhal finally decides he's had enough of Allbee leeching off him:

"You dirty phoney!" Levanthal cried huskily. "You ugly bastard counterfeit. I said it because you're such a liar, with your phoney tears and your wife's name in your mouth, every second word. The poor woman, a fine life she must have had with you, a freak like you, out of a carnival."

People reveal themselves in anger; they lose hold of the image they want to present to the world. But it's impossible to write a novel in which everyone is angry all the time. So the writer needs to find the smaller signs where people give themselves away. Great examples of these are scattered throughout Paul Theroux's collected short stories.

Theroux is a great describer of groups. Whether it's a reception at a London Embassy, the muggy heat of a Malaysian polo match, or four poets strolling through a frosty Amherst night, Theroux's group scenes bristle with life. This isn't because his characters are constantly screaming at each other—although their tempers do fray and irritations do flare—but rather because he creates the impression of separate human minds running on very different rails. Theroux's people talk to one side of each other, they enter conversations pre-armed with a view of the world, their minds snag monomaniacally on an idea and then refuse to let it go.

How much mental space an author needs to achieve this is moot.  Graham Greene often said he knew his characters had become real when they became capable of surprising him.  In contrast, Nabokov described his characters as "galley slaves."  And yet to the reader Humbert Humbert remains as disturbingly real as his desire for Dolores Haze. 

The issue of authorially-granted freedom has often led to novels being labeled as either plot-driven or character-driven; but the fact is, any wholly alive story is set moving by the hungers and self-deceptions of its people. The plot of The Maltese Falcon ticks along like a Swiss watch. But it's the low cunning and mutual suspicion of Joel Cairo, Brigid O'Shaughnessy and the Fat Man, and the almost amoral nature of the "blond Satan" (Sam Spade) they turn to who set the book ticking.

Who would you recommend as a great example of characterization, either to learn from or simply to enjoy?  Which writer and which of their works?

Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives in Bangkok.  His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Sun, Inkwell, The Minnesota Review, Natural Bridge, and GUD, among others.

Monday, September 11, 2017


Hee! Well, not really about you, but here are ten things I hate (in no particular order) that you might relate to:
1.  Someone reminding me right before I go to bed that there is no mattress on earth––no matter how clean––that doesn’t have a few bedbugs. Talk about a sleepless night.

2.  Losing anything other than weight.

3.  Cell phone bills.

4.  Scary things. Tornadoes or strong winds that get me thinking they might turn tornado any second, or rodents within 300 yards of me––and not just the furry kind.

5.  Stepping in dog do-do. Especially barefoot.

6.   Getting behind schedule.

7.   Sitting on a hard chair with no cushion, reminding me that despite the coverage I now have, there’s still some bone in my butt.

8. A picture hanging on a wall crooked, or a rug laying crooked on the floor. I have a sister whom I suspect makes sure she’s got a few things hanging off balance before I come to visit her, just to watch me squirm.

9. Hearing stories about what’s in the hot dogs I eat.

10. Choosing what to wear to work in my home office where nobody sees me. Okay, I lied; don’t hate this one. Couldn’t think of a tenth to hate. :-)

What about you? Got any pet peeves?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017



by Maylis De Kerangal

A novel translated by Sam Taylor

For Readers:

A bestseller in France, Maylis De Kerangal's The Heart is a fictionalized account of a heart transplant. Readers meet the donor first, twenty-year-old Simon Limbres, who rises from his warm bed predawn to surf a winter sea with two buddies. It's not the cold that kills him, not a surfing accident, but one of his friends, the driver who, warmed by his van's heater on the way home, falls asleep at the wheel.

The first few chapters are so intense they can almost be swallowed whole, partly due to the shock of a young, healthy man's death, and partly due to the reader’s discovery of the author's stunning prose. The language she employs (which was capably translated to English by Sam Taylor) is at once concise and impossibly descriptive, and so poetically rendered that it touches a chord perhaps unexpected. Here's an excerpt with Simon surfing toward shore:

He lets out a yell as he takes this first ride, and for a moment of time he is in a state of grace—a horizontal vertigo: he is level with the world and feels as if he is coming out of it, part of its flux—the space closing in on him, crushing as it liberates, saturating his muscle fibers, his bronchial tubes, oxygenating his blood. The wave unfolds in a vague temporality—slow or fast, imppossible to tell—suspendng each second until the surfer ends up pulverized, a senseless heap of flesh. And it's incredible but, no sooner has Simon Limbres crashed onto bruising rocks in the gush of the climax than he is turning around and heading back out, without even a glance at the land or the fleeting figures glimpsed in the foam where the sea hits the earth, surface against surface; he paddles back out to the open sea, his arms windmilling fast, plowing a way to that threshold where it all begins, where it all gets going.

The characters are numerous yet authentic. There's Pierre Révol, head of the ICU unit where Simon is taken after the car crash; Cordélia Owl, an ICU nurse with hickeys on her neck and love on her mind; Simon's family: his mother, Marianne, father Sean, sister Lou and girlfriend Juliette, all heart-broken, stunned; twenty-nine-year-old Thomas Rémige, a nurse trained to coordinate organ and tissue removal for the country, a man who sings loudly enough to make the window blinds vibrate, loudly enough for the dead to take solace; Marthe Carrare, a lonely hospital employee authorized to access national data on organ transplants ; Claire Mé jan a woman in her early sixties, desperately hanging on as she waits for a new heart, marking days in a dreary apartment she's rented in order to be closer to the hospital; Emmanuel Harfang, heart doctor, devoted cyclist and descendant of a famed Harfang family of doctors—conceited, probably, appropriately; Virgilio Breva, heart doctor, a bear of a man with a weakness for Rose, his difficult and explosive woman who has no patience with his love for soccer or the necessity of his disappearing now and then to perform surgery when she wants him at home.

When the mix of personalities converge in the operating and waiting rooms or grieve at home, the atmosphere is thick with individual tensions and distractions. These are the places where Kerangal expertly completes the story she has skillfully crafted. It's a notable book both for its realism and the author's impressive style. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Reviewed by Sue Ellis!

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
ISBN PQ2671.E64R4713

For Writers:

Perhaps author Maylis De Kerangal's greatest success in writing The Heart is the research she did into clinical medicine. Her research touches every aspect of the story and in itself is such a fascinating addition to the basically simple tale that it turns the story into art. I loved the last chapter, how it deals with the surgical teams' clean-up of the theater, mundane things like changing clothes, splashing water on their faces, heading out to grab a bite. It's shocking, almost, that one person lost his life and another benefited from the donation of his heart, all between dawn and 5:49 A.M.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Future Biker Chic of America!

                                             Video taken by Michelle and Derek Buscovick.