Posts Tagged Alaska
Caribou Island, by David Vann. Publisher: Harper (January 18, 2011). Hardcover. 304 pg.
Alaska, an attraction for both adventurers and loners, is the ideal setting for a novel about crumbling relationships that hide behind happy facades. When I read David Vann’s collection of semi-autobiographical stories, Legend of a Suicide, the introspective darkness of the stories impressed me. Caribou Island explores many of the same emotions: isolation, regret, settling. The storytelling flows with honesty and grace. The simple writing provides depth, empathy and a glimpse into the thoughts of each character.
In the novel, the main focus is on Gary and Irene, a 50-something couple who moved to Alaska three decades ago. They met in California where Gary was completing his PhD dissertation and Irene taught elementary school. Gary convinced Irene to travel to Alaska as an adventure and two adult children later [Rhoda, a planner, and Mark, a carefree guy], the couple still lives in small-town Alaska and now they resent each other. Gary’s goal is to build a cabin on the isolated Caribou Island. Irene’s not so happy about being stranded out there through the winter, completely cut off from her daughter Rhoda and civilization. As a child, Irene found her mother hanging when she arrived home from school. How much does this effect Irene today? She may not have dealt with it completely and as her marriage deteriorates so does her physical and mental health. Only recently did Irene tell her daughter Rhoda about it and the two women have a close mother-daughter relationship. The magic of Caribou Island is that the content can be as sad, cold and unforgiving as Alaska’s weather and as stunning as its landscape.
Vann remains brutally honest about relationships from the beginning. It seems that Gary and Irene settled with each other. Both realize they could have and should have done better. There is much focus on that fact that the men seem to have more options and choices in marriage than the women do. I’m not sure I can agree with that. For instance, Rhoda, Irene and Gary’s daughter, has been living with a successful dentist, Jim, for several years. She’s waiting for him to propose. Recently however, Jim had an affair and now thinks that he can be safe by marrying Rhoda and have affairs on the side. Why marry Rhoda? She cooks his dinner whenever he wants it. Even gets up to get him more to drink. She cleans and just does whatever he wants. Yet if she moved anywhere but this small town in Alaska, Rhoda might have many more options in men.
Both Irene [Gary had seemed so promising. A doctoral student, bright enough to get into Berkeley. She felt tied to him, felt wanted, felt like she belonged.] and Rhoda [What she didn’t understand about Jim was where his filling was. Nice golden crust on the outside. A dentist, with money and respect. When she first told people she was dating him, they were all impressed. His house fit the dream, too. A buttery life.] suffer inferiority complexes in that their partners could have chosen smarter women instead of safe women. Is this due to lack of selection or because the men are faulty specimens? Caribou Island delves deep into these relationships and in doing so explores why we choose to be with whom we end up with long-term and whether we are truly fulfilled and retain our independent spirits.
Title: How Did You Get This Number?
Author: Sloane Crosley
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (June 15, 2010)
Category: personal essays
Review source: publisher
How Did You Get This Number? is an often laugh-out-loud, witty and observant collection of essays.
Amy Steele [AS]: How did you start writing personal essays?
Sloane Crosley [SC]: I fell backwards into it, writing on occasion for The Village Voice when they’d let me. Then I started writing for other venues and then, really, for myself. That’s when I truly got comfortable enough to write what I wanted to write.
AS: What do you like best about this writing format?
SC: It forces you to find the artistic frame around every experience, no matter how common or how extraordinary.
AS: When did you decide to be writer?
SC: Have I? I think I just have the best relationship with the medium. I love it, I’m frustrated with it, I can express what I want to express best through it. But if I had to choose, I think I’d be a rock star with stellar stage banter.
AS: I would like to do this kind of writing but have no idea where to begin. How do you write/ what kind of schedule do you have?
SC: I don’t have a very rigid schedule. I think the beauty of writing essays is that there’s generally an end in sight. In How Did You Get This Number, the essays are longer and darker – and hopefully often funnier – than they were in I Was Told There’d Be Cake. So unless you have a book deadline for a whole string of them, you can always start one when you have time, get half way through, realize it’s not turning out how you’d like and toss it. That’s not a great feeling but it’s also not the same thing as scratching 200 pages of a novel.
AS: How many drafts do you write before the final version?
SC: It varies per essay but between two and five.
AS: When you write, how conscious are you about the amount of humor and amount of seriousness in each piece? In “Light Pollution,” you are able to point out some of the ridiculous aspects of Alaska while simultaneously having deference to its majestic nature.
SC: I think I write like my grandmother used to cook. When you’d ask her how much sugar or salt should be added to a dish, she’d often say “you know when your heart tells you.” That said, if she really took a wrong turn, she’d consult a recipe book. So I like to do whatever comes naturally, adding humor or pathos when it feels right. But if the rhythm is off when I edit or if it’s just not working, I will insert or remove jokes.
AS: In “If you Sprinkle,” you talk about silly pre-teen games like Girl Talk and then also the unrealistic influences for one’s early twenties. How does the media affect one’s expectations?
SC: Perhaps it’s that expectations and desires for how to be a woman or even just how to be a grownup seep in while we’re not looking. It becomes difficult to pinpoint how we came to want the things we do.
AS: You say you’d never be “asked back” to Paris in the essay “Le Paris!” Why do you feel that you don’t belong there?
SC: I manage to break their rules without even trying. Which is a shame.Because I have a profound affection for their macaroons.
AS: How do you remember things so well?
SC: I think most people have very good memories. It’s how they choose to use them. And it is a muscle that can be worked. Once you know you want to put down an experience in writing, you try to find every entry point back into that experience. If it’s worth writing about, you probably won’t get stumped.
AS: What is your worst New York apartment or roommate situation?
SC: I had a roommate I write about in the essay called “Take A Stab At It.” She borrowed my things without asking to a ridiculous degree and yet labeled her food. Mostly we just were very different people who didn’t get along. But she never sacrificed a chicken in my bedroom or anything like that. So I suppose I’ve had it pretty good.
AS: What is the greatest challenge in traveling alone especially when you went to Portugal?
SC: Creating your own schedule. It can be tough to have a traveling companion with a traveling style and set of priorities that differ from your own. But if you go it alone, you perversely miss that.
AS: How does working in publishing affect your writing and vice-versa?
SC: I am lucky in that I work with writers who are infinitely more talented and famous and usually both —so it can be intimidating. But it’s also very motivating to work with your heroes and get paid to do it.
AS: What do you like best about writing?
SC: You can read it more easily than you can read a block of cheese.
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New York City
“Writers on Writing” event with Larry Doyle, Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Simon Rich
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