The Writer's Life
Tommy Orange: In the Present Tense
|photo: Elena Seibert
Tommy Orange is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He was a 2014 MacDowell Fellow and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. His debut novel, There There (Knopf), is reviewed below.
When did you start writing and decide that this was your calling?
I came to it pretty late. I was kind of doing it unconsciously in the margins of textbooks and on the backs of notes. I have a distinct memory of writing weird little lines everywhere. I did not consider myself a writer, was not headed in that direction. I graduated from college with a bachelor's of science in the sound arts. I was a musician, but did nothing with my degree. I got a job at a used bookstore, and while I was working there, fell in love with literature; from there, I decided I wanted to write. I spent the rest of the time playing catch-up with everyone who knew for a long time they wanted to write.
How did getting your MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts--which offers the first indigenous-centered MFA program in the U.S.--change your writing?
I was three or four years into the middle of writing a novel when I started the program. I definitely picked up a lot of tools--there's an amazing faculty there. Also, it was really important to become a part of a writing community. There was a lot of support and energy that added to everything. I felt like I wasn't writing in a void. That helped in a lot of intangible ways.
The prologue and interlude in There There are so powerful. They sound like a universal song, or lament, that is always being sung in the background to the novel.
I wanted a prologue, and originally there wasn't an interlude, but my editor wanted to break it up--there were 14 pages of it. The way it worked out was perfect. It did always feel like I was trying to write something in a collective voice--the royal "we." As Native people, sometimes we feel we have to explain ourselves or set the record straight because our stories have been told wrong or not told for so long. I really wanted to reach back and update, and to explain what urban Indians are. There are Native families who have been living in cities since the 1950s, and 70% of Native people live in cities now, so it was a way of catching people up on what it means to be urban Indian, the relationship with a city that's its own thing, and I felt I needed to put that in at the beginning to contextualize.
In the U.S. as a whole, we like to think of Indians historically and romantically; if we think of urban Natives, we think of homelessness and alcoholism. You write, "We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere." You are pushing against stereotypes.
Yes, that's what I was doing with the prologue. We've been facing these stereotypes and these old tropes for so long. If you feel some rage in there, that's because it's really there. We are dying to be seen just as human and equal. And present-tense people.
Author Terese Mailhot said that she prefers to be called Indian because it's a "stark word, one embedded in the bureaucracy of North America." In There There, you use multiple words--Indian, Native, Native American, Urban Native, Indigenous.
Most Native people I know just use "Native" as shorthand. They don't say Native American or American Indian. Some other communities say Indigenous. I'm okay with Indians calling each other Indian, but it's uncomfortable for me to hear non-Natives saying "Indian." There are certain times when I will slip into saying "Indian"--it depends on the context.
I like what Terese said, and I like that we struggle with this, and that it's uncomfortable for us to even pronounce a people, because of how uncomfortable the very history is. We have a lot of reckoning to do with our history.
You said, "One of the reasons I wrote a polyphonic novel is that I come from a voiceless community." Was it difficult writing in different points of view?
It was difficult for a lot of reasons. There weren't too many other works to look at, for one. There are no other urban Indian novels that I know of, at least, there weren't when I was writing mine. It's super complicated to have everybody's stories get woven together into one whole story, but the powwow--being the place they all converged--gave me a guiding light.
What is the importance of powwows?
It means different things to different people, but I like it because it's both traditional and contemporary, and it's a place where we can dance, where there are competition and prizes, where we can work on and sell our jewelry. We get to see each other--it's intertribal--and it's a connection to our culture and heritage. You hear loud singing, booming drums--it's unapologetic and proud.
In the Thomas Frank chapter--before he was born, he "swam to the beat" of an arrhythmic heart--the percussion in his very being resonated with the sound of powwows.
People have commented on that chapter as being rhythmic, and I honestly did not intend to do it that way. That chapter is semi-autobiographical, and it came flying out of me in a very short time period. There wasn't much thinking as far as doing conceptual things with it. It really just happened fast.
In the first chapter, the test pattern Indian on Tony's TV sets up the importance of reflections for each of your characters--they look at themselves in mirrors, screens, metal surfaces. Are they searching for their true selves?
It's meant to function as a lot of different things. One is reflection, and looking for what is Indian about themselves--they are struggling with identity. The test pattern Indian reflects how we are depicted on screen; screens are ever-present in our lives now.
Who are your literary heroes? Who do you like to read?
Off the top of my head: Borges, Kafka, Clarice Lispector, Sylvia Plath, John Kennedy Toole, Roberto Bolaño, Marlon James, Alejandra Pizarnik, Ocean Vuong, Louise Erdrich. --Marilyn Dahl
A Shout in the Ruins
A Shout in the Ruins
is Kevin Powers's follow-up to his acclaimed debut, The Yellow Birds
. It's an ambitious sophomore effort that draws from more than a century of U.S. history, centering on the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. Beginning in the antebellum South, Powers introduces us to the Reid family: Emily and her father, Bob; and their slaves, Aurelia and her son Rawls. Emily and Rawls grow up in close proximity but separated by a wide gulf. Even as a young boy, Rawls notes that Emily's pain differs from his "in source and scope. While hers came from a rare remonstration by her father, his was inscrutable and vast." As they grow older, they grow farther apart, before being reunited by the cruel plantation owner Levallois and the changes brought on by the Civil War.
The narrative also adopts the point of view of George Seldom, who, as a very old man in 1956 North Carolina, searches for evidence of his childhood. Seldom's parentage and true age are a mystery to him as an orphan coming out of the chaos from the Civil War, and he frequently ventures into the past through recollections of a hard life now approaching its end.
Powers's cast of characters is large for a relatively short book, and one of the pleasures of A Shout in the Ruins
is the way it serves as a jumping-off point for a dozen or more separate but interwoven stories from a variety of perspectives. It brushes aside myth and romanticism for a clear-eyed look at American heritage. --Hank Stephenson
, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Discover: A Shout in the Ruins is a short but sprawling novel that follows slaves, plantation owners, orphans, veterans and many more from the antebellum South to the 1980s.
$26, hardcover, 272p., 9780316556477
In Tommy Orange's brilliant debut novel, There There, 12 people, primarily urban Cheyenne, move toward convergence to attend a big powwow in Oakland--most eagerly, some warily. "We made powwows because we needed a place to be together. We all came... for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid... layered in prayer and hand woven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed and cursed."
Tony Loneman begins the interwoven stories. He has fetal alcohol syndrome, which he calls the Drome. His eyes droop, his mouth hangs open. But he's tall, he's strong, he makes "looking like a monster" work for him. Dene Oxendene is recording urban Native stories. Edwin Black is biracial; he made it through grad school, writing his thesis on the influence of blood quantum policies on modern Native identity and literature written by mixed-blood Native authors. Opal Violet Victoria Bear Shield goes to the powwow to watch her young nephew, Orvil, who has learned to dance watching YouTube videos. Opal's sister, Jacquie Red Feather, a substance abuse counselor, is also on her way to the powwow, 10 days sober.
There There is a fierce story of despair, addiction, recovery and hope, with moments of sweetness and humor. Orange asks what it means to be Indian, Native, biracial--how is identity parsed? In the Gertrude Stein sense, "there is no there there" connotes the absence of homeland. For Orange's people, Oakland is a new "there." His title is also a promise of comfort, but one that proves elusive.
Tommy Orange has written a bold, passionate book that stabs you in the heart. --Marilyn Dahl
Discover: There There, a powerful novel about urban Native Americans, is underlain with a drumbeat of sadness and conflict, but threaded with hope.
$25.95, hardcover, 304p., 9780525520375
Pretend I'm Dead
Whiting Award-winner Jen Beagin's first novel, Pretend I'm Dead, features the raunchy, antsy, droll and painstakingly proficient housekeeper Mona. After a blue-collar childhood in Torrance, Calif., with an alcoholic father and equally dysfunctional mother, she is placed with distant kin in Lowell ("Hole"), Mass., and pretty much left to fend for herself. By day she cleans the houses of her adopted hometown. By night she works at a pop-up needle exchange, where she meets a disabled addict wearing a tee with Jack Kerouac on the front. Two decades older and living in an SRO hotel, this man she calls "Mr. Disgusting" has a room with real paintings, Indian textiles and shelves of existential and Russian novels--unlike her last boyfriend, "some edgeless dude... whose heaviest cross to bear had been acne." Mona may not know where she's going, but she knows what she likes.
If Mona's uneasy relationship with Mr. Disgusting opens doors to possibility, her housecleaning work grounds her. She's got a vacuum jones ("on applications she listed it as one of her hobbies") to go with the practice of raiding her clients' medicine cabinets. When Mr. Disgusting disappears, he leaves her a letter urging her to escape to New Mexico to start a new life. Why not? After packing her pickup with books and cleaning supplies, she takes off, rents half an adobe casita duplex in Taos, and launches a housekeeping business.
Beagin's debut is grungy and ribald, melancholic and funny. Throw in a little wisdom, schmaltz and a few useful housekeeping tips, and Pretend I'm Dead
delivers a real bang for the buck. --Bruce Jacobs
, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe
, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Whiting Award-winner Jen Beagin's first novel introduces the raffish and despondent Mona, a beguiling and lovable cleaning lady.
$24, hardcover, 240p., 9781501183935
Life Is Good
, trans. by John Brownjohn
In Alex Capus's Life Is Good, Max, a 50-something, married father of three, is cozy in the world he's built for himself. A former writer, he now owns a bar in the small town in Switzerland where he grew up, tending to the needs of his neighbors and old friends after seeing his sons off to school each day. That coziness envelops the book, pulling you into a quiet life--sort of like sliding onto a well-worn couch.
There isn't really a plot. The novel begins when his wife, Tina, departs for a year-long sabbatical in Paris, leaving Max to fend for himself and his nearly-grown sons. Capus (Léon and Louise), however, is more interested in probing the psychology of that departure than using it as the start of a narrative arc. Life Is Good dwells in memory, the stories the narrator tells himself and friends about his marriage, childhood and the history of his hometown.
Given the description one might assume the story is a bore, a navel-gazing look at the life of an established man. But Capus's writing is lively, and Max is just off-kilter enough to make hanging out with him interesting. Plus, at 200 pages, the book makes sure to not overstay its welcome. It's a perfect companion to a snoozy Sunday afternoon, lounging on that well-worn couch. --Noah Cruickshank
, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: The short novel Life Is Good envelopes the reader in the coziness of small-town life.
$19.95, paperback, 160p., 9781910376928
First-time novelist and former cellist Aja Gabel delves deeply into the sacrifice and passion needed to deal with the fiercely competitive world of classical music and into the relationships among four friends who find a way to make it to the top together.
In 1992, four young string musicians form the Van Ness Quartet, trading promising solo careers for the lure of greater fame and fortune as an ensemble. Ambitious, steel-spined first violin Jana knows she thrives best when playing with others. Privileged viola prodigy Henry could become a superstar on his own, but his friendship with Jana keeps him loyal to the quartet. Sweet, gentle second violin Brit has no family and clings to her fellow musicians as a substitute. Daniel, cellist and ladies' man, waits tables to pay for his rented tuxedos and instrument, sometimes resenting his need to work harder than the others to stay in the music business.
follows the Van Ness members over the course of 18 years, through their ups and downs as they win and lose competitions, support and antagonize each other, and find their way home to one another through music again and again. Complex and tender, this slice of life reveals the toll professional music takes on relationships, with its requirement of constant travel, and physically, as the musicians suffer injuries from routine bruises to excruciating arm pain. With its range of topics and core theme of chasing a passion, Gabel's debut will strike the perfect chord with book clubs and readers who love character-driven narratives. --Jaclyn Fulwood
, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: Aja Gabel's debut novel follows the members of a string quartet from young adulthood to middle age for a beautiful portrait of lifelong friendships.
$26, hardcover, 352p., 9780735214767
Food & Wine
More with Less: Whole Food Cooking Made Irresistibly Simple
In More with Less
, the food blogger behind the popular What's Cooking Good Looking
offers recipes and inspiration for clean, whole-food dishes that can be prepared in no more than 30 minutes.
"When you try to make more out of less, something magical happens," writes Jodi Moreno in the introduction to her cookbook. It is magical, indeed, to realize that while Moreno's recipes are simple to prepare and call for a minimal number of ingredients, they promise complex and nuanced flavor palettes. Dishes like Broccoli + Tahini Soup with Broccoli Stem Ribbons, Parsnip Chowder with Garlic Chips, Cucumber Noodle Pad Thai and Coconut Curry Lentil Balls highlight the promise of plant-based foods. A chapter on fish dishes offers highlights like Maple Mustard Marinated Black Cod. Each of the 130-plus recipes in More with Less is, as Moreno puts it, designed to be "versatile and forgiving," meaning dishes can be easily adapted to be dairy-, gluten- and soy-free, depending on readers' tastes and dietary restrictions.
With a comprehensive list of additional resources and a recommended stock list for one's whole foods pantry (and fridge and freezer), More with Less
makes whole-food cooking and clean eating a feasible--and flavorful--possibility for home cooks. Moreno's plant-centered dishes and her invitation to play with flavors, ingredients and textures in new and exciting ways will appeal to vegetarians and omnivores alike; even those skeptical of the health benefits of clean eating will find new dishes to explore here. --Kerry McHugh
, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: The popular food blogger behind What's Cooking Good Looking offers more than 130 recipes for clean, whole-food eating at home.
$35, hardcover, 272p., 9781611804706
Biography & Memoir
Tesla: Inventor of the Modern
It's not unusual to find electrical engineers and inventors skewed to the edge of the weirdness spectrum, but Nikola Tesla was in a class all his own, as represented in Richard Munson's illustrated biography, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern. He was a Croatian-born ethnic Serbian immigrant who stood 6'2", weighed 140 pounds, dressed to the nines, spoke eight languages, slept only three hours a day, memorized and wrote poetry, filed 300 patents and mesmerized Wall Street investor audiences with crackling Jedi-like light tubes arcing between eight-foot electrically charged plates. He was like an uber-nerd forerunner of Elon Musk--the charismatic entrepreneur who named his car company after Tesla. On the other hand, Tesla was also a celibate germaphobe, a superstitious numerologist and a lousy businessman who died broke at age 86, in the New Yorker Hotel.
More than just a biography of this strange genius, however, Munson's Tesla is a history of the nascent electric power industry and men like Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Guglielmo Marconi, who competed with Tesla to bring the miracle of electricity to the masses. Under license to Westinghouse, Tesla's "alternating current" generator converted the electricity market from Edison's "direct current" limited access system to the ubiquitous power grid in place today.
An inventor's inventor, Tesla never managed to leverage his genius into the wealth that Edison did. And Munson (From Edison to Enron
), a Midwest businessman and energy wonk, taps a variety of primary sources, industry trade literature and Tesla's autobiography, My Inventions
, to flesh out this enigmatic inventor and contrarian thinker. --Bruce Jacobs
, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe
, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Tesla tells the extraordinary story of the eccentric and enigmatic inventor whose genius transformed the global power industry.
$26.95, hardcover, 320p., 9780393635447
There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story
American ex-pat and author of Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman applies her wit and insight to life in one's 40s, the awkward transitional decade when many individuals shift out of their youth but don't quite enter old age yet. The mother of three says, "I've noticed that men only appraise me on the streets of Paris now if I'm in full hair and makeup." And waiters have shifted from calling her "mademoiselle" to "madame." Determined to understand this disorienting stage, she delves into the finer points of being a grown-up as she travels the winding road of a 40-something adult.
At times she turns up the humor, as in a chapter about arranging a threesome for her husband as his birthday gift, which turns into a freelance assignment for an American magazine. But There Are No Grown-Ups is equally full of heartfelt insights and revelations. Druckerman shares her battle with cancer and celebrates the success of her book. She acknowledges goals she'd like to reach but hasn't quite accomplished yet.
Throughout the book she receives advice and she imparts it. She examines the mysterious decade with sincerity but never takes herself too seriously. Candid and spirited, Druckerman takes the fear out of 40. She offers those facing this decade reason to anticipate it positively, and those who are currently experiencing it--or already have--plenty to reminisce over. There Are No Grown-Ups
assures everyone, "vous allez trouver votre place
--you will find your place." --Jen Forbus
Discover: Parenting expert Pamela Druckerman tries to make sense out of being 40-something in a book that blends humor, memoir and self-help.
$27, hardcover, 288p., 9781594206375
Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir
Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
Elizabeth Barlow Rogers was a married young mother with a master's degree in city planning when she moved to Manhattan in 1964 and fell in love with Central Park. It was good timing, as the 800-plus-acre park needed love. Conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who won a design competition in 1858 with their plan for a public park that was also a work of landscape art, Central Park went into decline in the 1960s, an era of poor management and relaxed regulations.
Vandalism, financial shortfalls, political intransigence and accusations of elitism were among the obstacles that Rogers faced during her 20-year commitment to return Central Park to its Olmstedian glory. In 1980, she became co-founder and president of the Central Park Conservancy, a joint public-private enterprise that, although no longer under her leadership, continues as a force for civic good.
Replete with black-and-white and color photos, some providing opportunities for before-and-after comparisons, Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir
has an authorial reserve that prevents it from fulfilling its promise as a memoir, but it's a fascinating and invaluable document of a wildly successful restoration effort. Rogers is at her most vivacious when describing on-the-job challenges, as when the bird-watchers of Central Park protested the Conservancy's removal of several trees in order to reinstate some of the park's original view lines. "A tree war can be a nasty kind of turf battle" are just about the harshest words you'll get out of the endearingly patrician Rogers. --Nell Beram
, author and freelance writer
Discover: Elizabeth Barlow Rogers intertwines the story of New York City's Central Park with an account of her decades of stewardship.
$30, hardcover, 336p., 9781524733551
Essays & Criticism
Pops, Michael Chabon's third collection of essays, is a fun-loving meditation on fatherhood. Chabon remembers the small moments between himself and his four children that culminate in a rewarding, albeit sometimes challenging, life as a father. In "Little Man," he grapples with the understanding that his children will become people beyond his complete comprehension while he follows his gifted son around Paris Fashion Week. In "Baseball," he considers what it means to share interests with your children, rather than impose them. These tidbits lead to a final essay that reveals the subtle scars behind his own relationship with his often distant pop, a relationship that Chabon will forever try to outrun as a father himself.
While much of the collection's subject matter could be heavy in tone, Chabon balances these weighty emotional moments with tenderness and light humor. Overall, the collection reads as a concise and breezy reflection on family life, offering insight and entertainment in even doses. Acknowledging that parenthood is not a sitcom subplot, Chabon doesn't shy away from the thornier conversations he's had with his children, recounting a conversation about race in "Tom" and a tutorial on feminism for his son in "Dicktitude." These essays don't offer simple right answers for being a role model (thank goodness), but rather engage with the difficulty in a adroit and gentle way. As a follow-up to Chabon's Moonglow
, this collection continues the thread of fatherhood, expectation and masculine domesticity that enlightens so much of his best work. --Alice Martin
, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A pitch-perfect ode to fatherhood, Pops offers a set of feel-good yet still thoughtful essays for the literary dad.
$19.99, hardcover, 144p., 9780062834621
Children's & Young Adult
The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I
Five months after the events in the Printz honor-winning The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, 16-year-old Virginia still doesn't have it all figured out. She's "fallen out of like" with boyfriend Froggy; BFF Shannon is MIA for the summer; and, worst of all, police have charged her older brother, Byron, with rape. There is one bright spot: Sebastian, a "sea-glass-eyed, long-haired... nonskater artist boy" who makes her "stomach flip." Happiness is fleeting, though, when a twist of fate threatens to ruin their summer romance before it even has a chance to begin.
Virginia breezily shares her insecurities, fantasies and fears in a chatty voice, immediately establishing a rapport with readers, who will likely empathize with her "Entire Family Issues," including when her CEO dad makes her feel like "a lowly employee in his executive universe." Curvy Virginia often feels invisible in her athletic family, but she is often the metaphorical "punching bag whenever [her] parents are stressed," and it's only after both her siblings have disappointed their parents that Virginia finally rises to the top of "The Mike and Phyllis pressure machine."
While Carolyn Mackler's (The Future of Us
) The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I
delves into sensitive and painful topics, there is also a lot of humor. Virginia's wry observations of her small slice of the world are delivered through brutally honest lists about important things in her life, like her rules for "How to Make Sure Skinny Girls Aren't the Only Ones Who Have Boyfriends" (Rule #2: "Don't act like you're intimately acquainted with all the restaurants within a twenty-block radius of your apartment"). This welcome sarcasm coupled with a frothy romance balances the headier, more emotional topics. --Lana Barnes
, freelance reviewer and proofreader
Discover: A wry teenager navigates family challenges, body image issues and romance in this stand-alone sequel to The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.
$17.99, hardcover, 288p., ages 14-up, 9781681195995
From Twinkle, with Love
At 16, Twinkle Mehra is the youngest junior at her Colorado Springs charter high school. Twinkle knows "[s]ome might call people like [her] losers," but Twinkle prefers the term "groundlings"--channeling the poor who stood in front of Shakespeare's stages, unlike the privileged in their "silk feathered hats" comfortably seated at a distance. For much of her life, being "Invisible Twinkle" hasn't been all bad, especially since she had Maddie Tanaka as her best friend. But now that Maddie has left her to join the silk-hatted, Twinkle has plenty of time to figure out why Maddie feels she's not "BFF material" anymore.
For as long as she can remember, Twinkle has wanted to be a filmmaker. With the school's "biggest event of the year," the Midsummer Night festival, approaching, Twinkle gets her chance to take the director's chair. She finds her producer in film critic-wannabe Sahil Roy, who happens to be the brother of the boy Twinkle has been crushing on forever. Difficult truths and painful accusations will need to be resolved, new alliances will be made, secret admirers will be unmasked and Dracula and other monsters will all need to be confronted (and tamed).
India-born, Colorado resident Sandhya Menon's (When Dimple Met Rishi
) second teen rom-com, From Twinkle, with Love
, clearly celebrates the influence of her self-confessed "steady diet of Bollywood movies." She transfers her filmi
devotion to the page as Twinkle tells her story through journal entries addressed to her "fave female filmmakers." Between Twinkle's entries, Menon inserts Sahil's confessional blog and his texts to his best friends, along with mysterious e-mails Twinkle receives from a fan calling himself "N." While Twinkle's is clearly the directing voice, Menon makes sure she gets a diverse, committed supporting cast and crew to help her sparkle and shine. --Terry Hong
, Smithsonian BookDragon
Discover: 16-year-old Twinkle Menon goes from being virtually invisible to commanding the spotlight when she makes her debut film with a crew of unexpected new friends.
$18.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 12-up, 9781481495400