Archive for May, 2011

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Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin

May 22, 2011

South Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin‘s Please Look After Mom — her first novel to be translated and published in English — has already become an international bestseller, and the response on websites like Goodreads suggests that readers here are jumping on the love train too. But there have been naysayers as well, most notably Maureen Corrigan whose NPR review drew incendiary responses. While my own review in this weekend’s Washington Post wasn’t quite so strongly worded — and while I recognize that many readers might well connect with the book — I found Please Look After Mom a disappointment myself: maudlin, repetitive, and overlong. Here’s a sample paragraph from my article:

The book strives to plumb some deep and essential truth about motherhood, but the realizations that shatter these characters’ apathy may strike readers as somewhat less profound. From Chi-hon’s section: “You don’t understand why it took you so long to realize something so obvious. To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old.” From the father’s section: “After your children’s mother went missing, you realized that it was your wife who was missing. Your wife, whom you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart. Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly.” So a woman is more than the chores of motherhood? So you realize what you had only when it’s gone? I have to agree with Chi-hon’s assessment: Why has it taken so long to realize something so obvious? And yet similar revelations continue to mount. As Park So-nyo herself reflects: “Oh, I don’t know where to stop these memories, the memories that are sprouting all over the place like spring greens,” at which point I thought some pruning might have been nice.

Read the full review here for a more complete perspective. — Art Taylor

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Interview: Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow

May 19, 2011

Occasional contributor Brandon Wicks returns to Art & Literature this week to interview novelist Tayari Jones, who will be touring throughout the country with her new book Silver Sparrow, including a stop this weekend at the Gaithersburg Book Festival and in late May at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, a swing through the author’s native Georgia in early June, and an appearance later this year at the Fall for the Book festival, with which I’m associated. For the full list, see her schedule here. Thanks to both the interviewer and the interviewee for such a great discussion. — Art Taylor

Tayari Jones is the award-winning author of Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling. Her third novel, Silver Sparrow, is being published this month by Algonquin Books. 

Set in Atlanta in the 1980s, Silver Sparrow tells a story of urban bigamy through two sisters, Dana Yarboro and Chaurisse Witherspoon. One child, Chaurisse, is the product of James Witherspoon’s public marriage while Dana is part of his hidden world—a second family he supports on the side. What follows is a complicated negotiation of lies and family secrets which threaten to explode as the girls mature, potentially destroying both families if the truth should be revealed.

Brandon Wicks: With Silver Sparrow, I was immediately captivated by this notion of secret families and was reminded of Son’s Place, a famous and now sadly defunct Atlanta restaurant, whose proprietor struggled for his inheritance for being an “outside child.” All of this prompted my curiosity about the cultural history of this situation. Do you see “outside families” as an issue particular to an era or a region? to African American communities in particular? Or as something more universal?

Tayari Jones: The question of paternity and legitimacy has been a theme in literature since before the written word, I imagine. Think of all the “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children in the Bible, in Greek mythology, too. Zeus had dozens of outside children. Hercules, Perseus, even the Minotaur, all of them — outside kids. And even in African American literature, the slave narrative was not only about abolition of slavery but often about unacknowledged paternity. So this is nothing new, but it’s endlessly interesting.

The obvious question is the extent to which relationships can be institutionalized and what happens to people whose relationships are excluded from these institutions. And of course, there is the idea of rank and hierarchy in families. We don’t think of ourselves in the US as a caste culture, but the children born inside and outside of a man’s marriage offers a system of valuation that is readily accepted.

On the issue of whether is story is universal, I have to say that with everything I write, I am always asked whether I think my subject matter is universal. I believe that most art is universal. Of course different issues manifest with different nuances depending on cultural differences, but the emotional core of these human conflicts are applicable to all of us who are human. I know what I have to say next is not really the intent of what I am being asked, but when an author is asked whether her work is universal, the feeling is that you are being asked to argue on behalf of your own humanity, a position that no one should have to be in. As a black writer, a woman writer, a southern writer — this comes up a lot.

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Interview: Alan Orloff, author of Killer Routine

May 17, 2011

For the May edition of The Writer’s Center podcast series, I sat down with mystery novelist Alan Orloff, author of the Agatha Award-nominated Diamonds for the Dead, his standalone debut, and of Killer Routine, the first book in the new Last Laff series. The new novel features Channing Hayes, a stand-up comedian whose tragic past colors his investigations into a fellow comic’s disappearance. The interview can be heard here, and Orloff himself will be appearing at The Writer’s Center this Sunday afternoon, May 22, with novelist Ann McLaughlin as part of the Center’s Open Door Reading Series.  — Art Taylor

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Reading: Cheryl’s Gone on Thursday, May 12

May 10, 2011

I’m very pleased to be on the roster this month for the Cheryl’s Gone Reading and Performance Series along with poets Lauren Bender and Jennifer DePalma and the folk duo LunaSol. The event is Thursday, May 12, at 8 p.m. at Big Bear Cafe, 1st and R NW, Washington, DC. I’m not sure what I’ll be reading yet — whether something recently published or a new, untested piece — but I can offer some quick info on the other folks on the program.

Lauren Bender lives and works in Baltimore, where she is 1/3 of Narrow House and the whole director of the Show & Tell Series at Minás.

Jenn DePalma lives and works in Washington, DC. She is an active member of the now defunct D’Steele Society of Advanced Poetics. She is half of the art collaborative the YAY team.

LunaSol is a female folk-rock band born in the beautiful Bay Area of Northern California in 2006. After meeting in law school, Heidi Boas and Lara Eilhardt began performing together at local coffee shops and events in Berkeley, CA. After finishing law school in 2007, the band briefly separated until Heidi and Lara joyfully reunited in Washington, D.C. in 2008. LunaSol has since given several performances at Dahlak and Busboys & Poets in Washington, D.C., singing a mixture of folk-rock favorites and original songs. Listen online here.

Hope to see a good turnout later this week! — Art Taylor

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Review/Interview: Louis Bayard, author of The School of Night

May 4, 2011

The Spring 2011 issue of Mystery Scene features my essay on novelist Louis Bayard: partly a review of his new book The School of Night, partly a survey of earlier novels including The Pale Blue Eye and The Black Tower, and partly an interview with the author himself — who’s every bit as entertaining and enlightening as his books. Looking back on his debut novel — Mr. Timothy, featuring a grown-up Tiny Tim from Dickens’ classic Christmas story — and reflecting on his career as a whole, Bayard told me how he considered his books both entertainments and tributes:

Dickens was the writer who (along with Mark Twain) made me a reader. I loved him as a kid, and I rediscovered him as an adult, and at some point, I cottoned onto the fact that he was my biggest influence as a writer.  And so Mr. Timothy began as a kind of homage to him before slowly morphing into a mystery-thriller.  Looking back, I can see that all my books are homages in one way or another: to Poe, the first mystery writer in English; to Vidocq, the first crime writer in any language.  And even in The School of Night, I get to genuflect (briefly) in the direction of Shakespeare, which is something any writer of English should do at some point in his life.

For the full article, check out the new Mystery Scene, on newsstands now. The issue also boasts some other fine articles, including the cover story on Jasper Fforde, author of the Thursday Next series; a look back at the novels of David Dodge of To Catch a Thief fame; and a feature on Kelli Stanley, author of the Roman Noir series and the Miranda Corbie novels.

For my own interview with Stanley, check out The Writer’s Center’s podcast series. And speaking of… Do stay turned for my next podcast with novelist Alan Orloff, whose new novel Killer Routine kicks off a series of Last Laff Mysteries; this new issue of Mystery Scene reviews that book too, calling it “an entertaining debut with a diverse array of engaging characters.” My interview with Orloff should be posted next week. — Art Taylor

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