My best of 2011 list, NEA edition

As mentioned previously, I was on the selection panel for this year’s National Endowment for the Arts Prose Fellowships. For my 2011 “best of” list, I wanted to highlight the work of some of my favorite new Fellows. But first, to repeat a point I made in my earlier post: all 40 of the Fellowship winners are worthy of your attention. If you like my suggestions, don’t stop here; check out the full list of winners on the NEA website. And if you find my picks are not to your taste, definitely don’t stop here. The judging process is designed to insure a diverse selection, with something for everybody.

That said, here’s one set of suggestions on where to start reading:

Porochista Khakpour, Sons and Other Flammable Objects — Porochista Khakpour’s NEA submission was an amazing excerpt from an unpublished novel that I hope will be in bookstores in time to be on my Best of 2012 list. In the meantime I will point you to her 2007 debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects. It’s a story about an epically dysfunctional Iranian-American family that is by turns heartbreaking and hilarious. Here’s one of the hilarious bits, in which parents Darius and Lala Adam fret, Woody-Allen-addressing-the-audience-style, about their son Xerxes’s infatuation with I Dream of Jeannie:

DARIUS: I never approved of this, so in a way I am not evil to say, hey, her fault entirely! I believe in supervising kids. I believe if your son likes Planet of the Apes, which he did for a while, or Star Trek, which he also did, okay, so they are weird impossible shows, but harmless—TV is what they do when they’re not doing other useless stuff. But if your boy likes a show that is for girls, that’s where I draw the line. But this is the tough part with that damn show: so the main character is a girl—is it a show for girls? Because sometimes guys like girl shows, for the girl. I can live with that: he loved it in the guy-way. Any of us could be guilty of that. Fine.

LALA: At first I said, oh, he thinks she is from our country. Genies. Better than terrorists!

DARIUS: She is Arab—get that straight. There are no Persian genies. None! Arabian Nights, got it? No belly dancers either. This Jeannie is just an Arab woman, with a low self-esteem who dyes her hair blonde, with a white man husband she calls “master.” Ha! That sort of disposition is unheard of among the hard—I’ll say it: bitchy—females of Iran.

LALA: Very early on he asked me what her real name was. “Barbara Eden,” I said. Look, Mother, Barbara Eden is on! he would say…

DARIUS: I’ll admit it: around that time I bought him his first toy gun.

Great stuff. Go read it.

* * *

Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow — Tayari Jones’s submission, an excerpt from her novel Silver Sparrow, had what was hands-down my favorite opening line:

My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working at the gift-wrap counter at Davison’s downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn’t right between a man and a woman when the gift was a blade. I said that maybe it means there was a kind of trust between them. I love my mother, but we tend to see things a little bit differently. The point is that James’s marriage was never hidden from us. James is what I call him. His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she calls him Daddy, even now.

“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist…” Bang! Hi there! I know how to tell a story!

The full novel lives up to the promise of the opening. Beyond that I won’t spoil it, except to say that this is not a book to start reading on an evening when you need to get to sleep early.

* * *

Nalini Jones, What You Call Winter — Nalini Jones (no relation to Tayari) had my other favorite opening line: a page-and-a-half long run-on sentence about a weepy Hindu servant who works for the Almeida family in Santa Clara, a Catholic suburb of Mumbai. Although this particular story appears not to have been published yet, the Almeidas feature prominently in Jones’ earlier novel-in-short-stories, What You Call Winter. Here’s a passage about matriarch Essie (Easter) Almeida, that sums up her character perfectly:

The morning postman, who was stout, preferred not to climb the steps to put his deliveries directly into the hands of the waiting Almeidas. Instead he called up from the gate each day until someone from the house came down to meet him. Though Essie had complained about such laziness (and at Christmas made a point of giving a more generous tip to the afternoon postman), going down to collect the mail had become a fixture in her daily routine. She stopped whatever she was doing—folding the washing or scrubbing the carrots—and wiped her hands on her skirt, and shook her head at Lila, the kitchen girl, who had long since stopped offering to fetch the mail herself. If the baby was awake, he went bouncing down on his mother’s hip to meet the postman too, and when Essie came up again with a heavier step, the baby’s arms around her neck and a thatch of mail in one hand, she could be heard grumbling about fat men who could do with a bit of stair climbing instead of expecting heaven and earth to come to them. Lila suspected that Essie guarded this task so jealously—and towed Jude along—because she was determined that the postman should see firsthand the inconvenience he caused. Essie even put off her marketing until he had come.

When she had brought the mail upstairs, the baby, who was three, was released to run in circles around the chairs and table, and before anything else—before resuming her work with the laundry or vegetables, before setting out to market at last—Essie sifted through her letters. Lila had learned never to interrupt her. Letters for her husband, Francis, were kept aside, unless they were business matters that Essie intended to discuss with him, or from mutual acquaintances who surely intended Essie to have their news as well, or represented any kind of mystery, which she could not resist. Bills, invitations, notes from cousins, aunts, her brother in Coimbatore—she flicked through them without stopping, pausing only when she found something from her elder son, Simon. Usually this was addressed to Essie and Francis, and she took it at once into her own custody. Occasionally Simon sent notes to his older sister Marian, who was twelve, but Essie did not believe in secrets between mother and daughter and kept these as well… Only when the mail had been sorted did her day resume: wet bedsheets, heavy as canvas, flung over the line to dry; her stained blade against the carrot; the baby’s sticky fingers leaving marks on the chair; and the trip to the market, where the best fish would have already gone.

* * *

Jean Harper, Rose City: A Memoir of Work — My favorite of the creative non-fiction, Rose City chronicles Harper’s experience working in an industrial greenhouse in Richmond, Indiana. To put it mildly, this is not a subject I would have expected to find compelling, but the language is great and the description of the work is hypnotic, in much the same way that real physical labor can be:

The ebb and flow of workers in the greenhouse is constant. On a good week, there are about thirty rose cutters in four crews of seven or eight men and women, all working the one daily shift at the forty greenhouses of E.G. Hill Incorporated from 6:30 in the morning until three o’clock in the afternoon. But every other week someone will quit Hill’s, and the next week someone else will begin. The work is hard, sometimes dangerous, always tropically hot and mud-dirty, and the pay is low, as low as it can legally be in 1992: $4.25 an hour. When new workers discover the truth of the work, most turn away to something else. Welfare and unemployment offer a better return than a greenhouse job. Part-time work at Wal-Mart or in an air-conditioned factory is cleaner. A temporary job at a bank, or at an insurance company, holds out the promise of a future. There are reasons to leave the greenhouse. But for those who don’t leave, there are reasons to stay. Here, no one cares if you smoke on the job. No one asks if you can read or write. No one requires that you have graduated from high school, or that you consistently bathe, are entirely sober, or always straight. There is no dress code. There are no expectations of manners or etiquette or personal behavior or what Midwesterners like to call “morals.” There is only the work.

Hank hasn’t finished high school, he reads and writes with agonizing slowness, but he can cut roses faster than anyone: five hundred to six hundred roses an hour. Bo pees in the greenhouse between benches of roses whenever he needs to and smokes his rank cigars, but he can heft hundred-pound bags of fertilizer and tote a full five-hundred-foot water hose as if it is a length of twine. Eddie, when he knows he can get away with it, lights up a joint and tokes until he is adrift in a thoughtless space, but he will spray for weeds all day and the next without complaint or question. And me? I have transgressed the pact of one marriage, wrecked another, left all that I knew in the East for a place a thousand miles away. But no one in the greenhouse cares. Soon enough I learn to cut half as fast as Hank; I labor as hard as Bo; I take on every job in the greenhouse with the fervor of a penitent; and because I work hard, I am left alone. Because that’s all that matters: the work.

* * *

Sabina Murray, “On Sakhalin” — Sabina Murray’s short story “On Sakhalin” follows writer, physician, and would-be prison reformer Anton Chekhov on his 1890 visit to the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin Island. I love the dry tone of this:

Over dinner, the governor asks him about his day, his impressions of the prisoners, his thoughts: his thoughts present themselves as a series of photographs that he views, one by one, until he reaches something worth remarking on.

“I saw a man chained to a wheelbarrow.” This is the writer speaking. “He says he sleeps like that, eats like that. To be chained to a wheelbarrow,” this is the doctor speaking, “causes certain muscles to atrophy.”

“I imagine it does,” says the governor.

The obvious moment for this punishment to be explained passes in silence.

“But why chain men to wheelbarrows?” he asks.

“Because wheelbarrows are inexpensive.”

Although this must be a joke, he cannot find the correct laugh for it—even faked—and he nods.

“These men chained to wheelbarrows would strangle you, strangle me, swim back to the mainland, rape and pillage their way through Siberia, tramp on to Moscow or Saint Petersburg, commit all sorts of malfeasance.”

“But to chain them to a wheelbarrow—”

“Do you have a sister?”

He nods.

“Then you should understand. This is the duty of the governing forces in Sakhalin, to isolate the criminal element. To contain them with whatever resources we have.”

He imagines convicts chained to oxen and small trees, bottles of vodka and prostitutes, as such are the resources on Sakhalin.

“On Sakhalin” can be found in Murray’s just-published collection, Tales of the New World.

* * *

Belle Boggs, “Imperial Chrysanthemum” — The set-up may sound vaguely familiar, but trust me, this is not Driving Miss Daisy—more like the opposite:

Mrs. Cutie Young lives in two rooms and drives a 1982 Ford Country Squire with the wood stickers peeling off, but her silverware collection used to be worth forty thousand dollars. I say “used to” because three weeks ago it was stolen right off the mahogany breakfront while she was out visiting. I also should qualify that her house has plenty of rooms she isn’t using, and it is not Cutie Young who drives the Ford but me, Loretta, her nurse. I drive her to the Food Lion, to Aylett to go to the doctor, and lately to antique stores and pawn shops, to look at silver asparagus servers and ice tongs and oyster forks and what all, glinting pieces of metal as lacy and useless as doilies. The State Farm man offered her the forty thousand, or to replace what she had with new pieces, but the new pieces don’t approach in quality—it’s all hollowware now—and besides, her silver was not monogrammed but had her married name, Young, written out whole in scripty letters. They came down four generations of Youngs… The pattern is called Imperial Chrysanthemum. It has a bumpy, spiny surface that hurts your hand to hold and is a royal pain in the ass to polish. They don’t make it anymore, though they make plenty of other patterns just as tacky.

Maybe simplify, I told Cutie, picking up a simple Revere pattern with plenty of room for her name—first and last. The insurance man had brought a whole suitcase of patterns from Richmond to show her. I wanted to open up the dining room for his visit, so he’d have a place to lay them out, but she said the sunporch was good enough for an insurance man. I do not know a soul who has been good enough for that dining room, or either of the living rooms, since I have worked here. That includes grandchildren, her son, his wife, and the minister. She won’t let him in at all.

She shook her head. Ridiculous, she said, like I was suggesting she eat with plastic forks and knives, or with her toes. You criticizing my taste?

No ma’am, I said, thinking, I am criticizing your husband’s great-great-somebody’s taste.

Mattaponi Queen, named for the boat Loretta is saving up to buy, collects the full adventures of Loretta and Cutie along with other loosely interlinked—and beautifully written—short stories, all set in the Mattaponi River region of Virginia.

* * *

Shann Ray, “The Great Divide” — The protagonist of Shann Ray’s short story “The Great Divide” is a six-foot-nine Montana native who works a railroad job during the Great Depression. The story’s Western setting, its violence, and the poetry of its language all invite comparison to Cormac McCarthy:

The older men on the line call him Middie because they’ve heard talk of him breaking the back of a bull that wouldn’t carry his weight. It was at a rodeo he entered when he was nineteen, up in Glendive. The bull was old and skinny, put in by a local farmer as a joke. The bull didn’t show enough verve, so the boy bucked the animal himself.

Bent its middle like a bow, the vet said. Sprung its spine.

The bull had to be put down. The boy had both hated and delighted in this, delighted in undoing the farmer’s intention, hated that the animal was hard done by. The railroaders laugh their heads off and Middie has to listen to them nearly every stop. They sit behind their counters at each station, chewing the fat with Prifflach the conductor as they tell and retell what they’ve heard. Middie doesn’t like them. When they speak they look through him, just as Prifflach does. He is nothing to them. He lets them think they own him. He has a job, he bides his time…

Riding the Hi-Line he is mostly unseen by the passengers as he hauls freight and works coal. But a change in duty comes, a change he doesn’t welcome. He’ll provide muscle for the bossman, the conductor, Ed Prifflach. Three times tossing drunks to the local sheriffs at the next stop, twice tracking rich old lady no-shows still wandering after the all aboard. Then the real trouble begins.

“The Great Divide” is collected in American Masculine.

* * *

Carolina de Robertis, The Invisible Mountain — This incredible novel chronicles the lives of three generations of Uruguayan women: Pajarita, whose miraculous “second birth” in the town of Tacuarembó becomes the stuff of local legend; her daughter Eva, who runs away to Buenos Aires and spends time in the court of Juan Perón before being forced to flee back home; and Eva’s daughter, Salomé, who makes the disastrous decision to join the Tupamaro guerrilla movement.

This is such a rich story it’s difficult to find a brief excerpt that does it justice, but here’s a passage in which Pajarita’s husband-to-be contemplates the city of Montevideo, a character in its own right and the source of the novel’s title:

Monte. Vide. Eu. I see a mountain, said a Portuguese man, among the first Europeans to sight this terrain from sea… Monte. Vide. Eu. City of sailors and workers, of wool and steak, of gray stones and long nights, biting-cold winters and Januaries so humid you could swim through hot air. City of seekers. Port of a hundred flags. Heart and edge of Uruguay.

It was El Cerro they had been talking about. Those Portuguese. They had glimpsed El Cerro from their ship, and spawned the city’s name. Monte. What an exaggeration. Ignazio beheld it every day from his work at the port: a mound the shape of a huge fried egg, spread long and low across the other side of the bay. It was absurd, barely a hill, pathetic, and he should know, coming from a nation with true, majestic mountains, the Alps, the Dolomiti, the Apennines, Vesuvius, Presanella, Cornizzolo, real mountains that he himself had never seen but could be trusted to exist, to have weight and height and substance, not like this thing they called El Cerro he stole glances at all day as he worked, aloft on a steel crane, remembering those first fools to have seen Uruguay from sea…

There were strange things about this city. Amethysts used as doorstops, leather used for everything, a stone wall between Old City and New. An obsession with the president, a man called Batlle y Ordóñez, who had promised schools, and workers’ rights, and hospitals (secular ones, scandalously so, with crucifixes banned from the walls). All the laborers Ignazio worked with—even the immigrants, of which there were many—spoke of Batlle the way Italians spoke of the pope. These men were also obsessed with mate: a brew of shredded leaves and hot water, concocted in a hollow gourd, then drunk through a metal straw called a bombilla. They drank it as if their lives depended on it, and maybe their lives did, sucking at bombillas on their high steel beams, pouring water while awaiting the next crate, passing the gourd from hand to calloused hand. The first time he was offered mate, Ignazio was shocked by the assumption that he should share a cup. He was eighteen, after all, a grown man. He thought of refusing, but didn’t want the others to think him afraid of tea. The gourd felt warm against his palm. The wet green mass inside it gleamed. The drink flooded his mouth, bright and green and bitter, the taste, he thought, of Uruguay.

Highly, highly recommended.

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