Burroughs Adding Machine

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Women Writers Rule!

There was a period of time when I allowed myself only to read women writers. I devoured Virginia Woolf, E. Annie Proulx, Amy Hempel, and Toni Morrison. I was reading (and still do) a lot of the astute, original, and, in an eggheady kind of way–loopy–writing of Lydia Davis. For some reason, I felt some sexist part of me gravitated to male writers.

I like that I forced myself to consciously choose women writers; I’m somewhat disappointed that I had never assessed my choices. Does the gender of a writer make a difference to you?

Flavorwire published a slideshow of their favorite female writers, including Sarah Vowell (pictured above), who (whom?) I adore. She’s a regular contributor to This American Life, of course, but I like the fact that book-length essays allow her the room to showcase her wide-ranging knowledge and her wry voice. Flavorwire’s lovefest for Vowell:

7. Sarah Vowell

Why we love her: Vowell validates our inner history geek. She was also the voice of Violet in The Incredibles.

Best known for: Assassination Vacation; The Partly Cloudy Patriot; Take the Cannoli

The line that made us fall for her: “Once I knew my dead presidents and I had become insufferable, I started to censor myself. There were a lot of get-togethers with friends where I didn’t hear half of what was being said because I was sitting there, silently chiding myself, Don’t bring up McKinley. Don’t bring up McKinley.”

Vowell is one-of-a-kind smart. Self-effacing, with one of those hard-to-believe life stories (she makes growing up in Montana as hilarious as David Sedaris makes growing up in South Carolina), Vowell is only one on this list of remarkable women writers. I’m a big fan of the fiction of Barbara Kingsolver and Aimee Bender, who also grace the list.

Filed under: literature, women, , , , , , , , , ,

The List to End All Lists (For Writers)

Fiction editors Treisman and Killingsworth mock up The New Yorker fiction cover. (New York Times)

The New Yorker released its list of “20 Under 40” today. These are the hand-picked, anointed ones to watch. Evenly divided between 10 men and 10 women, the list emphasizes diversity with writers I admire like Dinaw Mengestu (who has written eloquently about Ethiopian and African immigrants to D.C.) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. I wrote a celebratory review of Adiche’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, for the Phoenix several years ago. They’re among other great, if envy-worthy writers in the issue.

Says David Remnick, the magazine’s editor:

“If they had too much in common, it would be really boring,” he said in an interview. “This is not an aesthetic grouping. The group is a group of promise, enormous promise. There are people in there that are very conventional in their narrative approach, and there are people who have a big emphasis on voice. There are people who are in some way bringing you the news from another culture.”

Other writers to admire include more acclaimed authors Chris Adrian (a recent visitor we invited to Boston College) and Jonathan Safran Foer, who share the anointment with lesser-known writers like C.E. Morgan. Will be interesting to see if these predictions make the same splash as their previous list more than a decade ago, which included now-Pulitzer winners Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz.

For all of us jealous-types, there’s a funny list of tips on “How to Complain” about the list over at Gawker.

Filed under: literature, writing, , , , , , , , , ,

In Awe of Francine Prose

I’ve read the novelist Francine Prose for many years now. Ten years ago, I stumbled across a fawning review of Blue Angel, still my favorite of her novels–though A Changed Man was woefully underrated–and have picked up her novels ever since.

D.G. Myers is equally enthralled, and wrote a sort of love letter in Commentary magazine. Myers praises Prose’s emphasis on narrative over diction, as well as her ardent love of literature:

As a character says in Hunters and Gatherers (1995), literature is her “idea of heaven”—a refuge from the battle of ugly appetites.

All of her characters are well-read, and Prose seems to have a place in her heart for George Eliot and Jane Austen.

A Changed Man may well be my favorite of her novels for the way it places the reader on uncertain ground and rarely allows us secure footing. One of the novel’s characters, a young neo-Nazi, walks into the Manhattan office of a Holocaust survivor. His purpose? To eschew his hateful ways and right his wrongs.

Prose’s skill throughout the novel is making us wonder if this man is truly seeking to redress his past, or simply charming his way into the good graces of the Holocaust survivor and his organization. There’s the plot-driven complications of the neo-Nazi’s former skinheads and the tension of a possible romance with a development officer. The emphasis here is not on lyrical prose, but believable detail and fast-paced scenes. Prose knows her characters, and it shows. In this scene, for example, Vincent, the neo-Nazi, is caught smoking the pot of a teenage friend:

For a while they’re both cracking up. The can’t even look at each other. Then they exchange quick glances, shrug, and start laughing again. Vincent’s laugh is one part surprise, one part relief, one part embarrassment, one part what-the-hell. This could so easily have gone another way.

Just one example of Prose’s intimate understanding of character. She manages to always keep her characters–and readers–off-balance. If you’ve never read the work of Francine Prose, you’re missing out.

Filed under: literature, writing, , , , , , , , ,

Best Fiction Featuring…Animals?

Boldtype published a kind of addendum to The New Yorker‘s recent publication of a short story by naturalist A.O. Wilson entitled “Trailhead,”about the travails of a put-upon ant, which includes, in part:

“The only thing he had ever done was accept meals regurgitated to him by his sister”

Later, the literary website expands on the genre of animal narrators with its own list of nearly two dozen narratives featuring sex-crazed anteaters (Dave Eggers’ How We Are Hungry), abandoned dogs (William Maxwell’s lyrical So Long, See You Tomorrow), and, of course, Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

I’ve included here the super-cool cover art for Animal Farm, created by artist/whiz kid/criminal Shepard Fairey. The book is a powerful reminder of how prescient Orwell was in publishing his political novel back in 1945.

Filed under: literature, , , , , , , ,

Writers on Writing (Novels)

WK-AR768_COVER__DV_20091105233214The Wall Street Journal compiles that oft-visited subject of writers and their habits. In “How to Write a Great Novel,” top-notch novelists from Edwidge Danticat to one of my favorite writers, Dan Chaon, discuss hours clocked, font size (Ann Rice uses 14-point Courier), and plot points outlined on notecards.

Interesting little highlights:

  • Nicholson Baker writes early, early in the morning (about 4 a.m.) with the lights off, his laptop darkened with light gray text, and, once finished, goes back to bed at 8:30.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro spends two years outlining his novel and one year writing the first draft.

Many writers discuss the painful process of ditching a novel: Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh among them.

The feature article about writers on writing has been done repeatedly, but this WSJ article is notable for its comprehensive compilation of writers.

Filed under: literature, writing, , , , , , , , ,



» "Pinays," AGNI, Spring 2016
» "Dandy," Post Road, Spring 2015
» "Wrestlers," Fifth Wednesday, Spring 2014
» "Babies," Joyland, August 2011
» "Nicolette and Maribel," BostonNow, May 2007
» "The Rice Bowl," Memorious, March 2005
» "The Rules of the Game," Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images (Coffee House Press, June 2003)
» "Deaf Mute," Growing Up Filipino (Philippine American Literary House, April 2003)
» "Good Men ," Genre, April 2003
» "The Foley Artist," Drunken Boat, April 2002
» "Squatters," Take Out: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America (Asian Am. Writers' Workshop, 2001)
» "Deaf Mute," The North American Review, Jan 2001
» "The First Lady of Our Filipino Nation," The Boston Phoenix, 1999
» "Paper Route," Flyway Literary Review, 1996
» "Brainy Smurf and the Council Bluffs Pride Parade," Generation Q (Alyson, 1996)
August 2020


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Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a Manhattan-based writer and non-profit manager. More

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