The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authorsby Laura Miller, Adam Begley
Since it began in 1995, Salon.com has been showered with awards and praise. Now, its 150,000 devoted readers can devour The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors--an all-original, A-to-Z guide to 225 of the most fascinating writers of our time, penned by an international cast of talented young critics and reviewers. Here are profiles, reviews, and bibliographies of the authors that matter most now--from Margaret Atwood to Tobias Wolff, Paul Auster to Alice Walker. Also included are essays and recommended reading lists by some of the authors themselves, such as Dorothy Allison on the books that shaped her, A. S. Byatt on her five favorite historical novels, Rick Moody on postmodern fiction, Robert Stone on the greatest war novels, and Ian McEwan on the best fiction about work.
Peppered throughout with marvelously witty illustrations, The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors will be a must-have for anyone who is looking for cocktail party conversation starters, a good read, or advice on what to read next.
Salon.com has won most major Web awards, including:
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Laura Miller is Salon.com's New York Editorial Director.
Adam Begley is book editor for the New York Observer.
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Abbey, Edward 1927-1989 b. Home, Pennsylvania
FICTION: Jonathan Troy (1956), The Brave Cowboy (1956), Fire on the Mountain (1962), Black Sun (1971), The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), Good News (1980), The Fool's Progress (1988), Hayduke Lives! (1990)
NONFICTION: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968), Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smoky Mountains (1970), Slickrock: The Canyon Country of Southeast Utah (with Philip Hyde, 1971), Cactus Country (1973), The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West (1977), Back Roads of Arizona (1978), The Hidden Canyon: A River Journey (1977), Desert Images: An American Landscape (1979), Abbey's Road: Take the Other (1979), Down the River (1982), In Praise of Mountain Lions (with John Nichols, 1984), Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside (1984), The Best of Edward Abbey (1988), One Life at a Time, Please (1988), A Voice Crying in the Wilderness: Essays from a Secret Journal (1990), Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey, 1951-1989 (1994), The Serpents of Paradise: A Reader (1995)
Celebrated as a brilliant, sardonic environmental polemicist and chronicler of the Southwestern landscape, Abbey thought of himself primarily as a novelist, and during the final decades of his life he nursed grievances against both critics and admirers who had slighted his achievements as a fiction writer. He spent much of the 1950s studying philosophy at theUniversity of New Mexico, where he wrote a master's thesis on anarchy and violence. Abbey's literary career began with the execrable bildungsroman Jonathan Troy, followed by two intermittently successful modern westerns with an existential bent: The Brave Cowboy (later made into a Kirk Douglas movie titled Lonely Are the Brave), and Fire on the Mountain.
In 1968, after supporting himself for several years by working as a seasonal park ranger in Utah, Abbey published the first of his eleven nonfiction books, the angry, elegiac essay Desert Solitaire; it remains his most popular title and is justly considered a classic of American writing on the meaning and value of wilderness. His fourth novel, Black Sun, tells the story of a man whose lover disappears after they spend an ecstatic period together at a fire-lookout tower in Grand Canyon country; the book includes some of Abbey's finest evocations of the alien beauty of the desert and some of his most bathetic musings on love and solitude. Abbey's best novel by far is The Monkey Wrench Gang, a hugely entertaining comic fantasy about a quartet of eco-saboteurs who roam the Southwest destroying roads, billboards, bridges, and bulldozers, and who dream of demolishing the West's greatest symbol of technocratic hubris, Glen Canyon Dam.
So compelling is Abbey's anarchistic vision that it was instrumental in inspiring the formation of Earth First!an organization whose more zealous and naive members sometimes attempted to emulate the demolition tactics of the novel's protaganists. The Monkey Wrench Gang draws its satirical force from both a gleeful countercultural violation of middle-class norms (its Vietnam vet George Washington Hayduke, "a saboteur of much wrath but little brain," could have come straight from the pages of the underground comix) and a Twainian, mock-heroic exuberance. Good News, Abbey's next novel, is a scabrous but ultimately slight exposition of a post-apocalyptic Arizona in which Abbey's worst ecological nightmares have come to pass. The author's most ambitious and explicitly autobiographical novel is The Fool's Progress; despite some fine passages of reminiscence about Appalachian boyhood on a Depression-era farm, the book is a showcase of many of Abbey's least attractive qualities (among them his willful cantankerousness, xenophobia, and self-pitying machismo). A posthumous sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang, Hayduke Lives!, was published in 1990.
See Also: Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, which includes All the Pretty Horses, portrays a Southwest very different from Edward Abbey's, but it is similarly transcendent and haunted by the loss of its pristine perfection. The novels of Carl Hiassen transplant the theme of violent, comic revenge against rapacious development to the wilds of South Florida. Barbara Kingsolver offers a feminized version of Abbey country in her novel Animal Dreams.
Achebe, Chinua 1930- b. Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in 0gidi, Nigeria
FICTION: Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer At Ease (1960), The Sacrificial Egg (stories, 1962), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), Girls At War (stories, 1972), Anthills of the Savannah (1987)
NONFICTION: Morning Yet on Creation Day (essays, 1975), The Trouble With Nigeria (essays, 1983), Hopes and Impediments (essays, 1988), Another Africa (essay and poems with photographs by Robert Lyons, 1998)
POETRY: Beware, Soul Brother (1971), Christmas in Biafra (1973)
Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, was a landmark of African fiction and has justly remained a classic for more than forty years. Set in the eastern Nigerian village of Umuofia in the late 1880s, it looks back at the fierce collision of Nigeria's Ibo cultureinto which Achebe was bornwith encroaching European power. Its tragic hero Okonkwo mounts a doomed resistance to the white man that leaves him exiled and destroyed.
Achebe describes with marvelous clarityin the essays of Morning Yet on Creation Day and Hopes and Impedimentshow he began to write partly in response to distorted Western views of Africa. Contesting Europe's invention of the "dark continent," Achebe retold the story of colonization from a Nigerian viewpoint, portraying a lost society warmly without overidealizing it. He aimed to restore the humanity of Africansboth in their own eyes and those of Western readers. While early critics overemphasized the novel's anthropological aspects, with Things Fall Apart Achebe also pioneered the fusion of Ibo folklore and idioms with the Western novel, arriving at an African aesthetic in which the art of storytelling is central to the tale. As he wrote: "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten."
Though Things Fall Apart has never been bettered by its author, it was the first of a tetralogy spanning Nigerian history from 1880 to 1966. In Arrow of God, set during British rule in the 1920s, the priest Ezeulu tests the power of his gods against those of his rivals and the white government, while No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People target corruption among the Nigerian inheritors of power in the 1960s with scourging and satirical wit.
Achebe stopped writing novels during the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s as he became involved with the defeated secessionist Ibos. (In 1990, a car accident near Lagos left him paralyzed from the waist down and the lack of adequate healthcare in his homeland has made a return risky.) In this period the poetry of Beware, Soul Brother and Christmas in Biafra, and the short stories of Girls at War, voiced his disillusionment with bloodshed and nationalism. (More recent poems can be found alongside Robert Lyons's photographs in Another Africa.) Anthills of the Savannah, his first novel in more than twenty years, excitingly pursues ideas he set out in his heartfelt polemic The Trouble With Nigeria. Under a military regime in the fictional west African state of Kangan, three boyhood friendsa journalist Ikem, a minister Chris, and the Sandhurst-trained military dictator Samclash as Sam maneuvers to become president for life. Highlighting corruption, Africa's leadership crises, and popular resistance to tyranny, the novel brings women characters to the forepartly in response to criticism of their backseat role in earlier works. With several narrators and whole sections in pidgin, it is flawed and sometimes cumbersome, but never dulltestament to Achebe's keen, mischievous independence in probing the changing concerns of his society, and with an undeniable moral punch.
See Also: Other African writers whose fiction touches on colonization and emerging nationhood include the Nigerians Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri (whose short stories also reflect the Nigerian civil war), the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah and the Somali Nuruddin Farah. For novels that illuminate the position of African women, see Changes by the Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo, So Long a Letter by the Senegalese Mariama Bâ, and Farah's political allegory about a circumcised Somali woman, From a Crooked Rib.
Acker, Kathy 1947-1998 b. New York, New York
FICTION: Politics (1972), The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1973), I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining (1974), Florida (1978,), Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978), The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1978), New York City in 1979 (1981), Great Expectations (1982), Blood and Guts in High School (1984), Algeria: A Series of Invocations Because Nothing Else Works (1985), Don Quixote (1986), Empire of the Senseless (1988), Literal Madness: Three Novels (Florida, Kathy Goes to Haiti, My Death My Life by Pier Pasolini, 1988), In Memoriam to Identity (1990), Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991), My Mother: Demonology (1993), Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996)
NONFICTION: Bodies of Work (essays, 1997)
Rebellious, willful, innovative, in search of her own destiny, Kathy Acker made her struggle to find and exert her own voice the secret center of her writing. Her roots were in the punk movement of the 1970s, and after several experiments, all of her preoccupations came together in Blood and Guts in High School, the story of a woman living and breathing for sex. Acker's goal was to smash through the rules of language and gender in order to reclaim herself, foiling time and place in order to propose new rules of her own.
Acker was also the gangsta face of postmodern experimentalism. In Empire of the Senseless, the hero's motto is "get rid of meaning" as he joins the female half-robot Abhor in Paris on a quest for freedom, love, and their creatorsomebody named Kathy. She appropriated classic works like Great Expectations and Don Quixote, exploding them into violent, pornographic pastiches. Her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, celebrates her career-long history of ransacking and plundering.
Acker died from complications from breast cancer in 1998, an ironic end for an artist known for her tattoos, piercings, weight lifting, and other body manipulations and one who spent so much time finding new ways to take possession of her own body.
See Also: Acker admired Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean Genet and consorted with new narrative writers like Dennis Cooper and Dodie Bellamy, but her work is part of the long-standing literary tradition of savaging the readerfirst conceived by the surrealists and including writers like Isaac Babel, William S. Burroughs, and Hubert Selby, Jr.
Alexie, Sherman 1966- b. Spokane, Washington
FICTION: The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (stories, 1993), Reservation Blues (1995), Indian Killer (1996), Toughest Indian in the World (2000)
SELECTED POETRY: The Business of Fancydancing (1992), First Indian on the Moon (1993), The Summer of Black Widows (1996), The Man Who Loves Salmon (1998)
Sherman Alexie began the 1990s as a poor unknown poet and ended them as a one-man cultural industry. A Spokane-Couer d'Alene Indian raised on a reservation in Washington State, he first attracted attention with The Business of Fancydancing, a collection of poems and stories about life on the rez. Alexie's Indians weren't noble red men or New Age visionquesters; they played in all-Indian basketball tournaments, got drunk on Annie Green Springs wine, lived in cheap HUD houses, and sold fireworks to whites driving in from Spokane. Above all they were, like Alexie himself, sharply ironic and damned funny. Still, the book would probably have quietly faded away were it not for the prime-time charisma of its author. At readings Alexie honed a stage persona that combined fiery liberal outrage with a Will Rogers-like wit. By the late 1990s, having written the script for the movie Smoke Signals, Alexie was preparing to direct a film adaptation of his bestselling novel Indian Killer and doing stand-up comedy.
How's the fiction? Pretty good. In his first three books, Alexie's Indian characters carried the uneasy burden of racism with a resigned form of black humor. By the time he wrote Indian Killer, though, the black humor had given way to pure rage. Indian Killer is a terribly dark, unrelenting novel about a Native American serial killer and the near-race war he triggers. The characters are thinly drawn and uncharacteristically uncomplicatedeveryone seems to be either an angry, revenge-hungry Indian or a naive, ignorant white guy. "A lot of people dismiss the book as angry or didactic," Alexie once replied to his critics. "Well of course! People have this view that literature is somehow supposed to be objective. The book is called Indian Killer, not White People Are Really Cool to Indians."
See Also: Leslie Marmon Silko also writes about Native Americans, as does Gerald Vizenor, who shares Alexie's tough-eye-edged-with-humor attitude and who writes both fiction and nonfiction about the American Indian experience. Simon Ortiz is another American Indian short story-writer whose work inspired Alexie.
Allison, Dorothy 1949- b. Greenville, South Carolina
FICTION: Trash (stories, 1988), Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), Cavedweller (1998)
NONFICTION: Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature (essays, 1993), Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1996)
POETRY: The Women Who Hate Me (1983)
Dorothy Allison writes about the kinds of experiencespoverty, child abuse, lesbianismthat usually come swaddled in one set of "correct" conventions or another, but she obeys no laws or manners, and that is precisely why her books reach beyond the boundaries of any specific community. Born illegitimate to a proud, violent, and despised rural clan, she survived beatings and rape at the hands of her stepfather, struggled her way to college, and eventually found an uneasy place for herself among the mostly middle-class lesbian feminist activists of the 1970s and 1980s. The tough, passionate women and dangerous men of her childhood remain her preferred characters, but stories in Trash and essays in Skin testify to her refusal to renounce her renegade sexuality for the sake of genteel sisterhoodoften at a high price. Few American writers have had to fight as hard for themselves and their voices, and few are as free of self-pity or as confident in their warmth.
Her first novel, the autobiographical Bastard Out of Carolina, was widely praised and became a bestseller. But Trash, a collection of short stories published four years earlier, offers the purest distillation of her sinewy lyricism. Allison's storytelling skills tend to be anecdotal, and Bastard has the occasional slack moment as she gathers steam for the next episode. Finally, though, Allison's first novel is knitted firmly together by fierce loyalty and the rage of betrayed love. Bone Boatwright, the eponymous bastard and a "stubborn-faced" little girl, grows up in a notorious family of flinty women and drunken, thieving men. Her adored mother, who marries a man who abuses Bone, never musters the strength to defend her child, and Bone faces choices no child should have to make.
Allison, though, shouldn't be mistaken for an "issue" novelist like the throngs of writers who seized upon incest as a primary topic in the late '80s and early '90s. She aims to be something like the bard of the women of her class, and in her 1998 novel Cavedweller, the story of a failed rock singer returning to her Georgia hometown to raise the daughters she abandoned, Allison gave her convenience-store managers and beauty-salon proprietors heroic stature. The book is baggier and less focused than Bastard but also less claustrophobic.
Allison belongs to that Bible-tinged, Southern-myth-spinning tradition of which Faulkner is the most prominent bloom; she's probably its earthiest. She no doubt acquired these skills, as Bone did, at her grandmother's knee, listening to the old woman "start reeling out story and memory, making no distinction between what she knew was true and what she had only heard told. The tales she told me in her rough, drawling whisper were lilting songs, ballads of family, love, and disappointment. Everything seemed to come back to grief and blood, and everyone seemed legendary."
See Also: Carolyn Chute strives, like Allison, to capture the lives of working- and underclass families in Maine. Blanche McCrary Boyd is another Southern lesbian with a rich sense of humor and a wild streak.
Every Novel Is a Lesbian Novel
By Dorothy Allison
When I think of the books that shaped my lesbian imagination, it is frankly embarrassing. The truth is that my ideas of romance and erotic authority and lesbian life patterns came out of some truly awful bookswhen there were any books that mentioned lesbians at all. I don't mean embarassing and bad in the sense that they were badly writtenthough, of course, that is a factorbut embarassing because I believed, truly and completely, in the fatalistic and brutal things that were told to me about who I could be as a grown-up lesbian. I was born to a very poor, violent family where most of my focus was purely on survival, and my sense of self as a lesbian grew along with my sense of myself as a raped child, a poor white Southerner, and an embattled female. I was Violet Leduc's Le Batard much more than I was Le Amazon, that creation of upper-class Natalie Barney. People tell me that class is no longer the defining factor it was when I was a girl, but I find that impossible to fully accept. Class is always a defining factor when you are the child one step down from everyone else.
At the age of thirteen I was always calculating how to not kill myself or how not to let myself be killed. That tends to stringently shape one's imagination. I did not plan to fill up a hope chest and marry some good old boy and make babies. I did not want to be who the world wanted to make me. I was a smart, desperate teenage girl trying to figure out how to not be dismissed out-of-hand for who I was. I wanted to go to college, not become another waitress or factory worker or laundry person or counter help woman like all the other women I knew. Everywhere I looked I saw a world that held people like me in contempteven without the added detail of me being a lesbian.
The only "lesbian" books I could find then were the porn under my stepfather's bed or those gaudy paperbacks from the drugstore which inevitably ended with one "dyke" going off to marry while the other threw herself under a car. This did not persuade me to be straight, but it did prove to me that fiction should be distrusted. No way I would kill myself for falling in love with my girlfriends. No, I had more deadly reasons to feel hopeless. To find a way out of the world as I saw it, I read science fiction. To sustain my rage and hope, I read poetry and mainstream novels with female heroines. And I read books by Southerners for ammunition to use against Yankees who would treat me mean. Always I read as a lesbian.
Everyone says that their first lesbian book was Radclyffe Hall's wretched Well of Loneliness, but that didn't do it for me. I knew from a very early age that I was a femme, and while I might fall in love with Stephen, I did not want to be her. (Well, actually, I couldn't even imagine falling in love with Stephenthat brooding, bossy, ridiculous upper-class creature who would never fall in love with someone like me anyway.) If you limit the list to self-defined lesbian books, then we get down to just one: Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle. But looking for self-defined lesbian books was never how I approached the subject. I always reinterpreted books to give me what I needed. All books were lesbian booksif they were believable about women at all, and particularly if they were true to my own experience.
I remember when I first read Barbara Smith's essay on why Toni Morrison's Sula was a lesbian novel, how this great grinding noise went through my brain. Of course, I thought, and so was Carson McCuller's Member of the Wedding and My Ántonia by Willa Cather. I always knew that. In that moment my whole imagination shifted, and I admitted what had always been so: I had spent my adolescence re-interpreting the reality of every book, movie, and television show I had ever experiencedmoving everything into lesbian land. Of course, that was how I had kept myself semi-sane and developed an idea of how to love someone, how to be part of a community, and maybe even find happiness.
I read Mary Renault as lesbianeven her novels that featured only men. There was her novel about two women on a houseboat, with the one of them writing westerns to support them both, The Friendly Young Ladies, which was definitely about lesbians, but all Renault's work seemed to me to carry forward the same themes. (I discovered that every woman I have ever dated had read not only The Persian Boy but Fire from Heaven, and recognized them as lesbian textsas if Alexander the Great was really, truly just another wounded butch underneath it all.) I read books for the queer subtext and because they advocated a world I understood. Books about outsiders, books about inappropriate desire, books where the heroes escaped or fought social expectations, books where boys were girlish or girls were strong and mouthyall were deeply dykey to me, sources of inspiration or social criticism or life-sustaining poetry.
Flannery O'Connorthat astonishing, brave, visionary who told hard truths in a human voicewas an outsider holding a whole society up to a polished mirror. She was as ruthless as one of her own characters, and I loved her with my whole heart. Surely, she was a lesbian, I told myself and took comfort from her stubborn misfit's life, the fact that she lived with her mama and never married. I did not need her to sleep with a woman to prove her importance to me, though I would have been grateful to think of her with a great love comforting her as lupus robbed her of all she might have done.
If I set aside Flannery O'Connor, I would have to say that science fiction made me who I am today. I spent my childhood buried in those books. Every science fiction novel I fell into as a child, regardless of the gender or sexual persuasion of the author, widened my imagination about what was possible for me in the world. There were those perfectly horrible/wonderful stories about barbarian swordswomen who were always falling in love with demons, and there were the Telzey stories and the Witch World books and countless brave and wonderful novels told from inside the imaginations of "special" young girls. Mindreading seemed to me to code queer. Alien suggested dyke. On another world, in a strange time and place, all categories were reshuffled and made over.
These days with everyone so matter-of-fact about sexual identity it is hard to explain how embattled I was as a girl, how embattled the whole subject seemed to be. It was entirely different for women ten years younger than me if they grew up in an urban center, and different again a decade later for everyone regardless of where they grew up. I wonder what it must be like for those lesbians younger than me who have never had to make that translation. How do they read books, watch movies and television, and shape their own sense of being queer in the world today? Sometimes I wonder if books are as lifesaving for teenagers today as they were for me when I was a girl. But then I go to speak to some group and there are those young people clutching books to their hearts, asking me what I am reading with the same kind of desperate passion I felt whenever I went to a library or bookstore. No doubt it is different these days, but that passion still seems to be there. Books are still where some of us get our notions of how the world is, and how it might be.
So what "lesbian" books shaped me? Sula and Member of the Wedding definitely. I reread them now, and for me they remain lesbian books. I think my lifelong struggle not to be as ridiculous, obvious, and oblivious as young Frankie saved me from being quite as blind to my own obsessions. Of course, this didn't help me to foresee all the other ways I would become as ridiculous as Frankie was. You can't get everything from books. And I know my sense of the honor between women and the importance of female friendship was buoyed up by Sula.
I would also put in one of the Ann Bannon novelsperhaps Odd Girl Out or Beebo Brinker, though I find them difficult to reread these days. When I was young, Bannon's books let me imagine myself into her New York City neighborhoods of short-haired, dark-eyed butch women and stubborn, tight-lipped secretaries with hearts ready to be broken. Her books come close to the kind of books that had made me feel fatalistic and damned in my youth, but somehow she just managed to sustain a sense of hope. And of course, there was her romantic portrait of the kind of butch woman I idealized. I would have dated Beebo, no question, although, like a lot of my early girlfriends, she would have grown quickly bored with my political convictions and insistence on activism.
Yes, Rubyfruit Jungle would be on my list because it made me laugh out loud and fantasize about moving to New York City and lobbing grapefruits at rich white men while dating actresses and writing my own novels. It was also written with a kind of joyful passion that countered all those deadly suicidal lesbian novels I had grown to hate.
I would want to list Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller because it is a love story I believed and a couple I could imagine walking around in my own little Southern neighborhood. It is hard for me to honor and enjoy romantic fiction and love stories. While I sometimes felt that, by the time I first read it, I was a little too old and untrusting for Patience and Sarah, I never doubted the truth of their love. It remains, thankfully, a book I enjoy.
There is one book I would put on any list of my most important and that is The Female Man by Joanna Russ, although I loved all her Alyx books. It is as hard and mean and fine as a Flannery O'Connor short story, if you could imagine Flannery stepping into an experimental mode more perverse than the one she managed with Wise Blood. It is also a true feminist classic, although I find that when I say that too many people smirk and look away. So, let me also say that it is almost as romantic as Patience and Sarah, with equally believable lovers and madwomen.
I wish that everyone would read Joanna Russ's books. I remember with pleasure Picnic on Paradise, the first novel where the character Alyx appears. At the time, I was about as doctrinaire as any lesbian-feminist in history, but I remember realizing that it made no difference to me that Alyx was not the lesbian I had first thought her to be. She was screwing a teenage boy with Walkman headphones plugged into his ears every chance she got, and still seemed completely a dyke to me. Russ gave me the idea that there were lots of different ways to be queer, and that even running off to another planet might not fix my life. She made me think that I better pay a bit more attention to life on this planet, and of course she also had a sense of humor. I require a sense of humor in all things.
Oh, what a relief it is to live in the world we have made! As cruel and prejudiced as it is, it is not the world in which I was a girl. We do not have to live hidden lives. We do not have to re-imagine ourselves into the bland over-mind. We have books, stacks and stacks of books on every imaginable subject written by lesbians, all kinds of lesbians.
Alvarez, Julia 1950- b. New York, New York
FICTION: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), ¡Yo! (1997)
NONFICTION: Something to Declare (essays, 1998)
POETRY: The Housekeeping Book (1984), Homecoming (1984), The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995), Seven Trees (1999)
In her three novels to date, Julia Alvarez has given us an amusing (if at times irritatingly superficial) portrait of the moneyed class in the Dominican Republic of the 1950s. She's drawn to the period just prior to the fall of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, and Alvarez herself spent the first ten years of her life in the Dominican Republic (where her father was involved in the political underground), fleeing with her family to New York in 1960.
In her first novel, the effervescent How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, a group of upper-class Dominicansraised with servants, multiple residences, loud outfits, louder jewelry, and perfect hair and nails (fetishized with scary frequency)adjust to the rigors and humiliations of the immigrant experience in America. Alvarez missed the opportunity to make good use of the Trujillo regime as back story; the heinous politics of the island could have lent the book some needed heft.
Alvarez based her engaging second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, on the true story of the four martyred Mirabel sisters, three of whom were killed in the struggle against Trujillo. The characters, storyline, and dynamic political and cultural setting are far better integrated in this book, and Alvarezalso a poet and essayistappears to have matured remarkably as a storyteller. She returned to the characters introduced in The Garcia Girls with ¡Yo! her most enterprising and successful effort so far. While Alvarez's plots are generally entertaining, her writing tends to be conservative, cautious, and at its worst a little corny and dull. But with ¡Yo! Alvarez uses to great effect a refreshing and playful narrative device: She has everyone who has ever met the protagonist, Yo, tell anecdotes about her; everyone, it seems, has a chance to speak except Yo herself.
See Also: Junot Diaz's celebrated first book, the short-story collection, Drown, offers a grittier, more masculine depiction of Dominican-American life.
Amis, Martin 1949- b. Oxford, England
FICTION: The Rachel Papers (1973), Dead Babies (1975), Success (1978), Other People: A Mystery Story (1981), Money: A Suicide Note (1984), Einstein's Monsters (stories, 1987), London Fields (1989), Time's Arrow; or, the Nature of the Offense (1991), The Information (1995), Night Train (1997), Heavy Water (stories, 1999)
SELECTED NONFICTION: The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986), Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions (1993)
Despite his precocious debut with 1973's The Rachel Papers, Amis has always seemed a novelist made-to-order for the 1980s: a sparkling talent yoked to an impoverished soul. His aptitude for energetically bitter social satire found plenty of grist in the era of Thatcher and Reagan, and he populated his books with ruthless elitists and charismatic frauds. His main themethat a brutal rivalry for dominance defines all human relationsoccupied him both before and after that Darwinian decade, and probably has its roots in his relationship with his father, the late, acclaimed, and equally misanthropic novelist Kingsley Amis.
The sum of a Martin Amis novel often feels slight, which is disconcerting because the partshis sentences, pages, and set piecescan be so gratifying. These virtuoso performances can make you laugh out loud at his ingenuity, his eye, his extravagant yet surgical disgust. Amis's forte is the descriptive list, the litany of outrages encountered, say, on a street in London or in the course of an American book tour. He's at his best when he casts aside his pedestrian moral sensibility and goes too far, and his characters are most winning when they're least human. It's the howling debauches of the obese filmmaker John Self (Money), the troglodytic musings of the petty hoodlum Keith Talent (London Fields), the preening adolescent hypocrisies of Charles Highway (The Rachel Papers), and the near-epileptic seizures of self-loathing that plague Richard Tull (The Information) that you remember afterwards, not Amis's vague gestures in the direction of substance.
"If the prose isn't there, then you're reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterization, psychological insight and form," the author told the Paris Review, and in an Amis novel, plot and character really are "mere," but only because he's not much good at them. At times he takes up a heavy thememost persistently, the threat of nuclear warbut this tends to feel like borrowed gravitas, a calculated attempt to look "serious." In Time's Arrow, which describes the death and life of a Nazi concentration camp doctor in reverse (the doctor grows younger, people sit down at tables to deposit food on their plates, etc.), this is particularly glaring, with the Holocaust introduced to lend import to what's essentially a stunt (and not a particularly amusing one). Even Amis's more substantial books often feel logy in the middle, as if the story were a toy engine, struggling to animate the static prose and keep everything moving along. Frequently a shadowy, manipulative, quasi-authorial character secretly controls the action for fiendish and unexplained endsends which one suspects include Amis's need to make sure something happens.
Because it speaks so forthrightly of the author's greatest passion, his ambition, The Information is Amis's sharpest and most satisfying book. Like Success, it juxtaposes the fortunes of two men: Gwyn Barry, a novelist whose sentimental, politically correct claptrap has brought him fame and fortune, and his failed and poisonously envious friend, Richard Tull, who pens unpublishable experimental fiction so grueling that everyone who reads it gets a migraine. The novel that followed, Night Train, feels like a distinct departure, not just because of its middle-aged American female narrator (a cop) or its noirish trappings, but because it ventures into something very like soul-searching. Centering on the suicide of a woman who has it all (which for Amis means beauty, brains, and sex every nightthere's something endearingly naive about his belief that good looks should ward off despair), it hints at a long-overdue investigation into what actually makes life worth living. It also has his least stylish prose, which suggests that his dazzle may be fatally linked to shallowness.
Amis got stuck with the grating epithet "bad boy" in part because his work defied the genteel British fiction of the previous generation, but also on account of his reputation for racy, glamorous living, at least compared to the poky lives of most authors. He winds up in the newspapers a lotin 1995, for example, when, in the course of divorcing his first wife, he jettisoned his longtime agent (alienating her husband, his good friend, the novelist Julian Barnes) in favor of the notorious Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie. This move sparked an angry editorial from A. S. Byatt, who accused Amis of running up the costs of the publishing industry by demanding huge advances in order to pay for his divorce and extensive dental work. (Only in England would such an accusation constitute a flung gauntlet.) For whatever mysterious reasons people become celebrities, he is onea rare thing in literary circlesand therefore the target of much resentment.
Amis has published two collections of journalism, but without the ferocity of his fiction they're disappointingly polite. Despite its wonderful title, his collection of pieces about America, The Moronic Inferno, can't compete for savagery with the gorgeous horrors of New York City as depicted in Money.
See Also: Will Self's fiction is often so reminiscent of Amis's that he was once thought to be a pseudonymous persona for the novelist, though Self favors more outlandish scenarios. Geoff Nicholson writes delightful, profane portraits of London life, without Amis's sour edge.
Antrim, Donald 1959- b. Sarasota, Florida
FICTION: Elect Mr. Robinson For a Better World (1993), The Hundred Brothers (1997), The Verificationist (2000)
When critics and journalists sound off about the "next" generation of American fiction, they tend to toss out the following namesRick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Donald Antrim. The trio attended Brown University at roughly the same time, they all studied under Angela Carter, they each now live in Brooklyn, and they're friends. Donald Antrim might be the most idiosyncratic (and wackiest) talent of the trio. His slim, fussy, perfectly calibrated novels are full of dark, Pynchonesque absurdities and more than a whiff of apocalyptic dread.
Antrim's first novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, plunks you into a sleepy suburban town that's gone haywire: Neighbors fire Stinger missiles at one another when they're not embedding their lawns with massive spikes to skewer would-be intruders. (In one scene, the town's mayor is drawn and quartered by citizens driving subcompact cars.) Antrim's black humor is as spiky as those lawn armaments and, sentence by sentence, Elect Mr. Robinson is a pleasure to read, if almost too cerebral a performance.
The Hundred Brothers, which is quite literally about one hundred squabbling brothers gathered for an annual meal, is another pitch-black comedy, but with more emotional meat on its bones. It's a surprisingly acute (if outlandish) take on the vicissitudes of sibling relationships. The event turns into a free-for-all of broken furniture and hurled insults, with nearly every brother harboring either a physical or psychic bruise. While The Hundred Brothers ends on a strange and falsely abrupt note, the novel remains true to its central subject: "the sorry indignities that pass as currency between us in lieu of gentler tender."
See Also: The absurdities, and the deft wordplay, in Antrim's work call to mind Thomas Pynchon's early novels, Angela Carter, and two young Brits: Will Self and Tibor Fischer.
Atwood, Margaret 1939- b. Ottawa, Ontario
FICTION: The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Dancing Girls and Other Stories (1977), Life Before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981), Encounters with the Element Man (1982), Unearthing Suite (1983), Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories (1983), Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems (1983), The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Cat's Eye (1988), Wilderness Tips and Other Stories (1991), The Robber Bride (1993), Good Bones and Simple Murders (stories, 1992), Alias Grace (1996), The Labrador Fiasco (1996)
SELECTED NONFICTION: Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Day of the Rebels, 1815-1840 (1976), Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (1982), Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1996)
SELECTED POETRY: Selected Poems, 1965-1975 (1978), Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976-1986 (1986), Morning in the Burned House (1995), The Circle Game (1998)
Margaret Atwood's work is often described as Canadian, feminist, and grim. This constellation would not ordinarily suggest a writer of enormous popular appeal, but Atwood is not an ordinary writer.
Atwood has actively participated in defining the characteristics of Canadian literature. "Canada is not an occupied country. It's a dominated country," she has said, arguing that survival is the national obsession, as the frontier has been for the U.S., and the notion of the island in Britain. Her own work represents Americanism by using noise and casual or brutal acquisition. This Americanism is often expressed through Canadian characters. The issue comes together effectively in Atwood's second novel, Surfacing, when the protagonist, while in the Canadian wilderness, comes upon a heron that has been mysteriously lynched.
Her feminism is equally incontrovertible. The classic Atwood protagonist is usually a woman involved in a destructive sexual relationship, having survived a destructive childhood. The narrative focus is very tightno one is better than Atwood at the accumulation of perceptions and personal history that establishes fictional character. Her details are perfectly chosen, intrinsically arresting, and absolutely persuasive. The Atwood protagonist is witty, imaginative, and self-absorbed. She has a job that is interesting, at least to the reader, though rarely high-paying. The men in her life are not her equal. But the women in her life also disappoint and betray her.
Mothers in Atwood's books often eat their young. The Robber Bride is unusual in its depiction of friendship among women, though these particular friendships arise entirely as a defense against the super-villainess, Zenia, a woman with the destructive capacity of a car bomb. Among Atwood's young girls, friendships are decidedly unfriendly. They evidence the clubby viciousness at which girls excelsee particularly, Lady Oracle and Cat's Eye. Atwood's is a feminism of isolation and the individual rather than connection and community. The family is important only as a matter of personal history. And wherever Atwood perceives feminism to be operating a sort of club, she declines to join.
So it does sound grim: murdered herons, abusive childhoods, isolated victims, and bad sex. But Atwood is often a very funny writer, even when her topic is not. Many of her novels are broadly comic. The best of these are Lady Oracle and The Robber Bride. Even when she is most serious, her protagonists have too much volition, too much energy to depress.
Plus there are the pleasures of her prose. Her second life, as a poet, is always evident. She draws her images from myth and fairy tale. Her narrative strategies are playful. Like many writers, she sometimes seems as interested in the question of how a story can be told as she is in the story itself.
Atwood's plots lean strongly, and not always persuasively, on the fantastical. Events are foretold, fortunes are read, visions are seen, the dead appear or speak. These elements often underpin the emotional climax of the book. Her narration is always so firmly grounded in an individual's limited point of view that alternative psychological explanations for fantastic events can't be ruled out. Still, the reader is not encouraged to settle for psychology.
Cat's Eye is perhaps the novel in which Atwood's usual interests, images, and strategies come together most marvelously. The narrator, Elaine, is a successful artist haunted by a girlhood friendship she cannot entirely recall. The story follows Elaine from forgetfulness to remembrance and is astonishing in its painstaking, painful depiction of childhood. "Little girls are cute and small only to adults," Elaine observes. "To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized."
Atwood's most famous novel is the atypical The Handmaid's Tale. In the feminist dystopian tradition of science fiction, this is a book set in the near future, in a society run by Christian fundamentalists. It is indeed a grim book whose protagonist, Offred, while no less sensitive than the usual Atwood heroine, is considerably more trapped and tormented.
The well-received Alias Grace represented another departure for Atwood: her first work of historical fiction. Woven of careful and evocative period detail, the novel is an intensely imagined account of the case of Grace Marks, who was convicted of murder in northern Canada in 1843. Atwood constructs Grace's first-person account so that it manages to conceal as much it reveals. Reviewers noted Atwood's cunning in crafting an ending that was happy for those who wished it so and chilling for readers who prefer to be chilled.
Atwood is a prolific and accomplished poet, essayist, and writer of short stories. In her most recent collection, Good Bones and Simple Murders, she experiments with a form that falls somewhere between these three. Of particular note are "Unpopular Gals," Atwood's meditation on the fictional role of the villainess and "Happy Endings," her funniest metafictional piece. Her earlier stories are more traditional. Among the most famous of these, "Bluebeard's Egg" and "Rape Fantasies" showcase her gift for writing stories that feel lighthearted but are actually deadly serious.
Atwood is as appealing to scholars as she is to lay readers. Supernaturally prolific as she is, even more has been written about her than by her. Margaret Atwood: A Biography came out in 1998, authored by Nathalie Cooke, a professor at McGill University and former president of the Margaret Atwood Society. It is the first book-length biography. "I try to stay more or less out of it," Atwood has said, in reference to such scholarly works. "I think of it as a kind of job-creation project."
See Also: Molly Gloss's Dazzle of Day, Carol Emshwiller's Ledoyt, Jane Smiley's The All True Adventures of Lizzie Newton, and A. S. Byatt's Possession.
Karen Joy Fowler
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