Saturday, March 7, 2009


All American

The Red Convertible
Selected and New Stories 1978-2008
Louise Erdrich || HarperCollins Publishers

Last fall, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the group that hands out the Nobel Prize in Literature, disparaged American letters, saying our fiction was “too isolated, too insular” and “too sensitive to trends” in our own “mass culture” (in short, too American) to matter much to the wider world. But it’s the very Americanness of our literature — the hybrid nature of our national makeup, the variety and breadth of our landscape, our mania for self-invention and reinvention — that captured the international imagination at a time when most readers could never visit the country they dreamed about. It still does today.

Americanness needs no apology; it’s the strength of our letters. And few of our contemporary writers exemplify its adaptive vitality better than Louise Erdrich, herself descended from the first Americans (her mother was part Chippewa, part French, and her grandmother was a tribal chairwoman) and from German immigrants. The author of some two dozen books for adults and children, Erdrich is also a wondrous short story writer. In “The Red Convertible,” she gathers 36 stories, 26 previously published, together creating a keepsake of the American experience. Like the painted drum in her story of that name, this collection can be considered “a living thing,” an emblem of the universe — “exquisitely sensitive for so powerful an instrument.” >>MORE

Writing Women

American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx
Elaine Showalter || Alfred A. Knopf

It may be surprising that there’s been no comprehensive history of women’s writing in America. But Elaine Showalter has now undertaken this daunting venture with her vast democratic volume, “A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx,” in which she energetically describes the work of long-forgotten writers and poets along with that of their more well-known contemporaries. In the 1970s, Showalter wrote “A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing,” which established an alternative canon of British women writers at a moment when feminist studies were very much in vogue, and her new book is an attempt to do the same thing for American literature. Showalter was, for nearly two decades, a professor in the department of English literature at Prince­ton (she was the head of the department when I was graduate student there), and she remains a grande dame of feminist literary studies. >>MORE

A Southern Gothic legend is hard to find

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor
Brad Gooch || Little, Brown and Company

Has any other 20th century American author with so little published output – virtually everything she wrote for publication and a few things that she didn't fit neatly into a single Library of America volume – had such an enormous influence on American literature? Mary Flannery O'Connor published just two novels, "Wise Blood" (1952) and "The Violent Bear It Away" (in 1960, three years before her death at age 39 from kidney failure brought on by lupus) and two collections of stories, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1955) and "Everything That Rises Must Converge" (1965). Her influence on literature over the last half-century is enormous, from Alice Walker (who read O'Connor's stories "endlessly" while in college and was "scarcely conscious of the difference between her racial and economic background and my own") to novelists as radically different in temperament as Walker Percy and Cormac McCarthy. The wonder is that it took half a century for her to get a definitive biography, Brad Gooch's "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor." >>MORE

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