Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

Title: Matrimony
Author: Joshua Henkin
Paperback: 291 pages
Publisher: Vintage (division of Random House, Inc.)
Publish Date: August 2008
ISBN: 9780307277169

“So how’s your book going?”

“Glacially,” Julian said. “It’s like that joke about Joyce Carol Oates. Someone calls her up and her secretary says, ‘I’m sorry, Miss Oates can’t come to the phone right now, she’s busy writing a book,” and the person says, ‘That’s okay, I’ll hold.’ Only with me it’s the opposite. Rip Van Winkle wakes up twenty years later and I’m still writing my novel… I’ve been at it almost ten years,” he said. “I’ve got two hundred and fifty pages, though I’ve probably thrown out twenty for every one I’ve kept. I’m laying waste to whole forests.”

“What’s the book about?”

Julian hesitated. Even to Mia, he hadn’t confided much; he didn’t want to jinx himself. Growing up, he’d had a special cup he drank from and a lucky number, eight. When he watched the Metsat Shea Stadium in 1973, five years old, in the corporate box seats with his father, he always wore his baseball glove… because he believed it made the Mets play better… Writers, Julian believed, came in all types, but one way or another they were control freaks, and superstition was nothing if not an attempt to exert control. Besides, he thought a good novel resisted summary; it had to speak for itself. Still, he felt he owed Carter an answer, for Carter was his friend and he’d written fiction, too.

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin, page 142

First of all, I want to say that when I first received an email from Josh to review and host a giveaway for Matrimony, I was preparing for a real life visit from my Second Life boyfriend. I was excited and in love, and all that other ooey-gooey stuff brought on by the overproduction of the brain chemicals dopamine and oxytocin. I read the summary and it sounded sweet and lovely and wonderful. However, by the time the book arrived, things between him and I had started going south (reality really ruins fantasy), and I didn’t want to read about happy people falling in love and living happy lives with each other and living happily ever after. So, I drug my feet so hard that I’m surprised I don’t have grooves in my floors.

Then Josh sent another email excusing me from the review having not read the book, and asking me if I still wanted host the book giveaway. I felt guilty for not following through on my side of it, deciding to grin and bear the book , and facetiously set the giveaway for the first day of Lent, stating the two sacraments, marriage and penance, went well together.

So I sat down Sunday morning and started reading Matrimony. Immediately I realized this book was, by far, NOT what I had expected. Josh’s characters are shocking and quirky, vibrant and memorable, drawing me in and guaranteeing I would read the book through to the final punctuation mark.

Julian’s roommate is convinced the other guys on their dorm floor pee in the communal shower and resolves to wear flip-flops when bathing. His writing professor, embittered by the treatment of his novel in a failed attempt to turn it into a movie, refuses to admit anyone who writes with the intention to write books for the film industry. What’s more, Professor Chesterfield writes commandments on the blackboard, 117 by year’s end, like “THOU SHALT NOT USE THE WORD ‘KERPLUNK’ IN YOUR SHORT STORIES,” and “ THOU SHALT NEVER USE PASS-THE-SALT DIALOGUE.

It is in this writing class Julian meets Carter Heinz, and the two become best friends. During their freshman year, Carter meets and falls in love with Pilar, as does Julian with Mia when they meet in the dorm’s laundry room. Thus begins Matrimony, as Henkin takes the reader on a 15 year journey in the life of Julian Wainright, born to wealth but refusing the comforts and connections the privilege would bring, his struggles to fulfill his dream to publish his novel, and the joys and heartaches life brings.

Unlike Sinclair’s Jungle, whose characters make small gains in one chapter, only to have catastrophic losses in the next, until you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all, the ups and downs the lives of the characters in Matrimony are believable and to whom the reader can fully relate. When Mia feels lost and alone as she watches her mother waste away from breast cancer, I wanted to hug her and comfort her and tell I knew what she was going through because my father died from cancer. I was reassured by Julian’s difficulties as a writer, knowing I’m not alone in my own feelings in my own sluggish progress with my novel. And when trouble arises between the couple after Julian learns about an infidelity nine years before, I completely understood his sense of betrayal and loss.

But Henkin hasn’t just written a compelling and involving tale of characters so real that you expect to find them at the grocery store or mall, Matrimony offers lessons in writing that I’ve taken to heart and inspires the reader to action. After reading how Mia copes with their separation, foregoing the comfort of their bed, sleeping instead on the futon from their college days and hoping to catch Julian‘s scent in it, I realized I was holding on to a person, knowing our relationship has ended.

After his visit, I had taken the bed sheet he’d slept on, folded it up and put it away, refusing to wash it because HE was in it; his skin cells, hair and scent were woven into the threads themselves. However, after reading Mia’s feelings, thoughts and actions, I grabbed the sheet and threw it in the washer, letting go of the hurt and disappointment and sense of loss of what could have been. I deleted his phone numbers from my phone and his address from my computer. Then I took a long look at the months I spent in Second Life, and asked myself what did I haveto show for it. The answer I arrived at was this: For the five months I spent escaping to a virtual (fantasy is a better term) world, I had neglected my responsibilities to my family, the housekeeping, to my reading and blogging, to paying bills, became forgetful of appointments and activities, and have had one of the worst cases of winter depression (I have Seasonal Affected Disorder) that I have had in a long time. I have very little good to show for it. Once I realized this, I removed everything related to Second Life from my computer and I’m debating canceling my account (I have decided to wait a month before doing something that drastic, though, as I’vealready paid the rent for my apartment). Though it was painful at first, I feel a profound sense of relief and freedom at having made a decision and taken action, taking control of the situation instead of being a passive victim of life.

I have told all of that to say this: The difference between a good read and a great book is whether or not the reader is changed and compelled to act on that change. A good read is enjoyable and fun, but is forgotten in a year or two; it is the chips and Twinkies of the literary world. Contrastingly, a great book may be an uncomfortable labor to take in, but the reader cannot walk away the same person he or she was before opening the cover and peeking within; it is the manna that sustained the Israelites for forty years of desert wandering, and is preserved for future generations’ understanding and inspiration. Great books become classics, and Matrimony, if there is any wisdom in the reading world, will be counted among them.

For its truth, wisdom, tangible characters, its meaningful and timely content, and its power to inspire and to illicit change, I give Matrimony by Joshua Henkin 5 out of 5 stars, two thumbs and toes up, and a perfect ten (even the German judge agrees). It ranks among the few books I’ve read that becomes a permanent resident of my library. I know I will reread this book, which is very rare for me. I just cannot praise Matrimony enough.

Thank you, Josh, for writing this book and for inviting me to experience and share it. *sniff… tear* 🙂

 

Don’t forget to sign up to WIN a personalized, autograph copy of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin!  Enter here to win! 🙂

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An Interview With Nam Le

I’m so excited to announce my first author interview! A couple weeks back I read and reviewed The Boat by Nam Le, and was very impressed with his writing and the stories. Shortly after reading the first story, Love and Honour, I asked Le if he would be willing to do a Q & A interview with me, and he was gracious enough to agree.

First off, I want to say that Nam Le is very personable, friendly, and down to earth. The emails back and forth was just like receiving email from a friend, even remembering my daughter’s name. His answers show he took time to consider his answers, and I was impressed that he treated the questions of a blogger with as much respect as an interviewer from a major newspaper.

And now, In the Shadow of Mt. TBR’s first author interview

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Q: I know you’ve been asked this several times in interviews, but this is the question that made me want to do my first Q & A with you. The narrator in the first story shares so much with you, same name, work history and Iowa Writer’s Workshop, how much of the first story is autobiographical?

A: It depends on your definition. Certainly the protagonist shares my name, and many of my circumstances, but of course it’s arguable that all fictional characters are, through their elements, frankensteined from ‘real life’. (I don’t mean that flippantly!) A lot of people assume that it’s easier cribbing from ‘life’ than from ‘imagination’ (a distinction that’s false on many fronts, not the least of which is because both are unavoidably mediated – and complicated – by consciousness (not to mention the vagaries of memory)), but in fact I reckon it’s much more difficult. Why? Because me being me – that is, me being supported by my own entire subjective infrastructure – I’ll almost always find my accounting of my own experience more compelling, more resonant, than readers who can only go by my words on the page. Writing from autobiography can tend to be a selfish enterprise that way. And as a writer, I feel it’s my responsibility to make the words on the page as charged and suggestive as possible – for a set of readers bigger than just myself!

Here’s another proof that the first story isn’t straight reportage from my life: ‘real life’ is hopelessly messy whereas my story is pretty ruthlessly determined. It deals, to an almost painful extent, with cliché, with hackneyed conventions: the blocked, alcoholic writer, the close-mouthed father, the story spewed out overnight in an inspired rush, its single (typewritten!) copy then burned (in a gasoline drum!), etc, etc. I contrived this story in this way to show up the contrivance – the artifice – of such stories – as well as the body of assumptions we readers bring to such stories – whilst attempting to nevertheless get some truth or feeling across. Art, after all, is – at its best – a lie that tells us the truth, and here I needed some of the truth from my own life to improve the lie.

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Q: The Boat as a book and you as a writer are receiving a lot of attention from critics and the media. How surprised are you by this, and how are you dealing with it?

A: I’m very surprised, and I’m dealing with it as best I can! That is, with gratefulness, as well as guilt – and some grog thrown in – for the chances my book’s received that other books haven’t. It’s got to be said, of course, that expectations are so low for short story collections in general – let alone debut collections – that any attention at all is gravy. I’ll be first to admit how lucky I’ve been – most of all for the incomparable team of folks that have supported me and the book. When it comes down to it, you write to put your hand up for a conversation – with other readers, writers, and books that have inspired you – so it’s a thrill to think that this book’s getting called on.

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Q: Some of the stories in The Boat seem to not have an official ending, the reader just seems to exit the scene before the end. Did you write these so as to leave it open-ended for the reader to interpret, or are they endings more of a resolution of the characters’ emotions?

A: I like that you used the word ‘official’ – part of my personality balks at anything official, and so I guess it goes with these stories. That’s the easy answer. The tough question highlights the fact that each of these stories has its own type of ending. When you say some of them ‘exit the scene before the end’ I think that’s telling: it posits an assumed or expected end (though of course it’s not the end – the end before the end is the end … are we clear yet?) There’s a tired (though not entirely legless) workshop axiom that endings should be ‘surprising but inevitable.’ Here’s how I see it. First, my stories are longer than the average so having laid down all the narrative threads it would stretch credulity to have them tied up at the same time. Second, there’s nothing like having a clear end in sight to make the intervening stuff feel like filler; I ideally strive to command the reader’s full attention at every moment in the story. Third – a clear endpoint enhances the power of a bait and switch. And isn’t it all bait and switch? I largely adhere to the idea that there are few clean resolutions in life; that even epiphanic moments come broken and bruised and bent out of shape. Why should fiction be any different?

Of course, as we’ve discussed, a story is a contraption, and as such its parts have to answer, to some degree, to each other. For me, an ideal ending sheds light on what’s come before; it speaks to its own concerns and it justifies the occasion of the story – while at the same time it gives its elements (character, place, situation) life outside its own body. Paradoxically, I know to leave a story just when I feel it coming alive in that more sustained sense.

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Q: Recently I had a conversation with my local bookstore manager about short story collections. She said that short stories don’t sell, except to people who buy books by particular authors. How do you feel about this statement, and why do you think readers don’t want short stories?

A: The conventional wisdom that short stories don’t sell is, like all conventional wisdom, pretty instructive until it’s not. There’s an element, of course, of self-fulfilling prophecy about it, as well as a somewhat institutionalised sense that short stories are merely training grounds for novels. Another strain of conventional wisdom proclaims itself baffled that short stories aren’t more popular in this age of sound bytes and fragmented attention spans; I don’t buy this at all – I reckon it’s fair to say that given half an hour, a complete short story usually requires more concerted, careful attention than a novel chapter – particularly if it’s not the first chapter. It’s people like you and your friend who are on the front lines of the effort to challenge this conventional way of thinking.

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Q: Hari Kunzru of The New York Times suggested the subject matter of the stories in The Boat was “calculated to tug at the heartstrings – and wallets – of liberal American readers…” How do you respond to this?

A: As I understand it, Hari Kunzru was referring not to the subject matter of the stories in The Boat in general but to what he called ‘war porn’ of the first story. After the quote you reference he actually goes on to ask: “Could the writer, just possibly, be lying? For money?” It’s unclear whether he’s referring to the character “Nam” in the first story, or to me as the author. Either way, I thought it an odd question – for many reasons – but particularly given that that first story, “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” makes no secret of its calling out of ‘ethnic’ narrative exploitation. In fact, that’s maybe the primary point of the story (and one that I’ve received flak for). For example: at one stage in the story, the protagonist, trying to justify the appropriation of his father’s ‘ethnic story,’ muses “If I write a true story … I’ll have a better chance of selling it” – that is, he’s asking the very question Hari Kunzru accuses him/me of ignoring. So I’m not sure I understand Kunzru’s point. Nor, come to speak of it, do I understand his premise: if indeed I wanted to pluck and pick-pocket those sucker Western liberal heartstrings and wallets, wouldn’t I (per his reasoning) then stick to Viet war porn? Why would I digress into the globe-trotting hodge-podge that’s the rest of the book?

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Q: Finally, I’m a big fan of the shortlist. What books are on yours?

A: Okay, arbitrarily limiting myself to fiction (and with all the usual caveats): Melville’s Moby Dick, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Nabokov’s Lolita, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory and The Heart of the Matter, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, fiction by Kazuo Ishiguro, Robert Stone, Mary Gaitskill, Martin Amis, William Golding, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Peter Carey, short fiction by John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Andrew Dubus, Tim Winton, Charles D’Ambrosio, Isaac Babel, Leonard Michaels, and on and on.

One More Year by Sana Krasikov

Title:  One More Year
Autor: Sana Krasikov
Pages: 196
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (a division of Random House, Inc.)
Publish Date: August 2008
ISBN: 9780385524391

She was tired, tired of waiting for some big event to happen in her life, while things only dragged on and on… Everything in her life was about waiting.

-Better Half, p 91

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One More Yearis a collection of eight short stories by Sana Krasikov. It is a lopsided effort. A couple of the stories are brilliant, one is a one of the worst things I’ve read lately, and the rest are, mneh.

Unfortunately, the first story in this book, Companion, is about a Russian divorcee named Ilona. She lives in an apartment with Earl Brauer and their relationship is never clear. Is she the live-in nurse? Is she just a friend and roommate? It is a confusing arrangement, and the only thing I am certain of is that Ilona is a self-centered twit who isn’t worth my time to read about. Earl isn’t much better, but at least I can understand a feel a slight twinge of sympathy. He’s lonely and she’s a user, but where he also loses me is that he’s manipulative. This story was so bad, I would have pitched the book had it not been an ARC to review. 0 stars for this one.

The two stories that I felt were brilliantly written and had great character development were Asal and The Repatriates. Asal is the story of Gulia, the unofficial wife of Rashid, who was previously married to a druggie wife-beater with an overbearing mother. She wants Rashid to divorce his legal wife so they can marry, just like he promised. When he won’t do this, she leaves for America to let him stew in his juices. When the call finally comes that he’s going through with it, Gulia’s joy is short lived. (4 out of 5 stars)

It wasn’t despair that had made Nasrin do it, she thought, it was simple vengeance. How did one compete with insanity, she wondered.

-Asal, page 65

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One thing that I liked about The Repatriates is that it shows the occasional immigrant who, upon coming to the US, believes their homeland is the best in the world. I’ve known several Vietnamese who talk this way, and have a Cuban friend who is always on about the marvelous things communism has done for his country. But they always do this with their feet planted firmly on the green grass of a free country, which always irks me.

The first line of The Repatriates tells it all:

The last days of Grisha and Lera Arsenyev’s marriage might have been a story fashioned out of commonplace warnings.

It’s the story of religious fanaticism, delusions of grandeur and trickery, and what it’s like to wake up and realized you’ve been duped by someone who was supposed to love and honor you. (4 out of five stars)

The rest of the stories are mostly just okay. Some are better than others, but nothing I’d buy a book for.

Maia in Yonkers: Maia came to New York City to work for more money than she could make back in the Ukraine. She flies her teenage son to visit her, and he proves that Americans don’t have the corner market on surly teens. (2.5 stars)
Debt: Seems to be about my relatives… Lev and his wife receive an unexpected visit from his niece and her husband. But, like my relatives, she’s come to ask for money. AND like my relatives, if he tells her no, she’ll write him off as a selfish money-hoarder. (2 stars)
Better Half: After staying in America, Anya marries Ryan who turns out to be a pot-smoking dreamer who’s abusive and paranoid-jealous. He hides her paperwork she needs to get her permanent alien status, among other butthole things, and yet… ugh, I wanted to slap her. (3 stars, maybe 3.5)
The Alternate: A man seizes the opportunity to have dinner with the daughter of his old college sweetheart with the hope of an affair. Mneh… (1 star)
There Will Be No Fourth Rome: Another stupid woman putting her freedom on the line for her boyfriend. DUH! Nona says it best in this story, “Don’t you just wish you could kill people lie that with your thoughts?” You see, that’s why I choose to stay single.(3 stars)

This book could be renamed “Women Waiting Around for Their Boyfriends to Divorce Their Wives”. The title “One More Year” comes from the second story; Maia tells her son she’s staying in America for one more year, to which he reminds her she said that last year.

What this book does well is present a picture of Georgia and Moscow the west has not seen. A world of dower-faced, bitter people who are only after what they can graft and out-right steal from anyone, even their friends and family… especially their friends and family. I suppose, if this is a true portrait, it is a mentality born from so much poverty and oppression. Even after they leave the old country and set up in America, they bring the same mindsets with them. In this, Krasikov’s characters are real and imperfect, even if they are loathsome.

However, I think Krasikov tries to put too many characters in her stories, making it impossible to develop them properly. It’s possible they’d make better novels. Another problem I had with this book is I found several parts confusing; places I wasn’t sure who was saying what or what was even going on. There were several times I came jerking to a stop over punctuation, sometimes too much and others not enough. One of those times was a sentence with a comma that tore up the effectiveness of the thought. I read and reread it, trying to figure out what she had meant to say, finally saying, “I hate that sentence” before moving on. I think the fact that the first story was so bad the rest of the book was tainted by that.

For much of this book, I can’t help but think One More Year is the kind of commercialized book Nam Le wrote about in The Boat‘s first story: Ethnic lit for ethnic sake, not for the quality of the writing. “She’s from the Ukraine! Buy her book!” Oddly enough, like Nam Le, she’s a Iowa Workshop writer. Hmm… maybe the fellow student in “Love and Honor” wasn’t from China after all.

After totalling up all the stars and dividing by 8, One More Yearreceives an overall 2.5 stars. Mneh.