Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Shout Out To Strout

My favorite writer of the moment is Elizabeth Strout, but she won't be just of the moment, she will endure, she is that good. I love the experience of "discovering" an author who speaks to me, moves me, inspires me in my life and my work, and immersing in that writer's oeuvre until I have consumed every thing she has to offer...for now. I am working my way backward through Strout's books, having started with Olive Kittredge, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize.

Of course, Strout has already been well-discovered, a well-deserved discovery. I confess: When an author receives a lot of hype, I often recoil, avoid that writer out of...could it be the snobbish notion that anyone who achieves wide-spread acclaim must appeal to the lowest common denominator? Does it have to do with a perverse desire to be an individualist, as a reader, to really discover a writer who has been lost or overlooked? Could it be the pesky green-eyed monster? Perhaps any or all of the above.

Despite these obstacles, I've come, finalmente, to Strout's work. Here I am in the midst of Amy and Isabelle, a full decade after it's publication, long after it's bestseller stardom. And I barely want to take a break from this enveloping read to write this post.

Amy and Isabelle is a mother-daughter story, that begins ordinarily enough in a claustrophobic Maine town, dealing with quotidian concerns, but builds toward a climax as violent and gripping as any Greek tragedy. Strout balances on that tricky tightrope between humor and tragedy. (If you are like me, you will find yourself laughing out loud in parts, your eyes burning in others). You know that experience where you are riding the wave of a wonderful book and only think, my book, must get back to my book, well, that's what I'm feeling about Amy and Isabelle.

Strout captures the complexities and contradictions of the mother-daughter bond, the fierce love and loathing. Though she focuses on the details of small-town life and its struggles and the petty and internecine relationships, there are scenes of such raw power, violence, and longing, they are indelible.

I admit: I am a mother of a 16-year-old, too, though my teen is a boy. I'm blessed to have a girl too, who is inching up toward teen-hood fast. But my admiration and engagement with Amy and Isabelle, with Strout's meticulously observed people and places, transcends that simplistic and diminishing notion of "identifying" with a world or a character. I come from a different world. I am discovering a new world. Strout is making an ordinary world, simple lives, fresh, intimate, unsparing, astonishingly real.

Elizabeth, if you come upon this, I hope you are writing. Don't want to run out of Strout.

1 comment:

Leo said...

Discovering a new author is always a joy, particularly when you know nothing about them or their work and when you finally sit down to read their words, the surprise that hits you and the satisfaction that builds ten pages in, twenty pages in, until you reach 50 and you`re hooked.

I have bought so much crap in my day that I am very cautious now when I see publishers hype about a new author, or someone that has existed for a while and has a new work.

Take Kate Grenville. She`s an Aussie and wrote a book called `The Secret River` a few years back. Won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and it was a great book about one of Australia`s first settlers settling his debt to society and homesteading on Hawkesbury River.

Then I read Discovering the Secret River: A Writer`s Memoir, all about how Grenville went about writing her book, how she toyed with the idea of writing a straight biographical book about her great-great-great-grandfather and how it morphed into the novel that it is. She found that writing straight biography was boring writing and fiction made the story come alive. In fact, the Memoir was almost a better read than the novel itself, because it revealed so much about the process of writing and frankly how difficult it is to translate a story onto the page and make it believable for all.

Grenville is the first author I ever met in person, attending one of her readings in Canberra while living in Australia in 2005. The room was packed with over 100 people inbibing of wine and nibblies. And even then, her exploration of the explosive meeting of white settler with black aboriginal was controversial. The audience was polite, but there was a black undercurrent that hummed; they didn`t like their dirty laundry being exposed in public.

Grenville will, I think, remain with me for the rest of my life. She made an impression on me, of an author who was willing to take a risk, to peel back the layers of polite subterfuge and expose how it probably was when White met Black in the outback of Australia.