Posts Tagged David Vann
To provide a bit of background, I read 150 books in 2015. I wrote 52 reviews for 2015 releases on this site. I gave very few books 5/5*. I am currently reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara so since I started it in 2015, I reserve the right to include it in my best of 2015 list.
Here are my picks for best fiction:
Outline by Rachel Cusk [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
–gorgeous writing. purchase at Amazon: Outline: A Novel
Where Women are Kings by Christie Watson [Other Press]
–from my review: Simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. Stunning. Entwines race, foster families, adoption, mental illness and cultural differences with exquisite descriptions and phrasing. purchase at Amazon: Where Women Are Kings
The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro [Algonquin]
–from my review: When you think every WWII story has been told, an original narrative comes along and you realize there’s a plethora of war stories remaining to be explored and shared. Abstract expressionist art, French refugees and the WPA collide in this riveting historical fiction novel that focuses on the sudden disappearance of young Jewish-American artist Alizée Benoit. purchase at Amazon: The Muralist: A Novel
Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson [Other Press]
–from my review: Rather haunting and definitely unusual. It’s tough to describe except to say it’s part mystery and part personal exploration. A strange story –in a good way– with gorgeous writing and an intriguing story-line. purchase at Amazon: Katherine Carlyle
The Last September by Nina de Gramont [Algonquin]
–from my review: excellent characters and a dazzling story-line involving mental illness, family, infidelity, relationships, love and murder. purchase at Amazon: The Last September
Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht [Harper Perennial]
–engrossing, beautiful and creative novel about a group of 30-somethings finding their place in the world. purchase at Amazon: Migratory Animals: A Novel (P.S.)
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman [Scribner]
–from my review: Brilliant concept and exquisitely written. This short story collection focuses on intriguing, bold and remarkable women from history. It’s edgy historical fiction. These women lived life as they chose to live it which likely made them misfits and outliers during their lifetimes. purchase at Amazon: Almost Famous Women: Stories by Mayhew Bergman, Megan (2015) Hardcover
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat [Other Press]
from my review: Touching, creative, lovely novel. It tells the story of a child of the Holocaust in a unique manner. purchase at Amazon: The Travels of Daniel Ascher
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North [Blue Rider Press]
–from my review: a fascinating novel about creativity, artists, fitting in and being satisfied with success, fame and how we perceive ourselves and how we want others to understand us. Sophie Stark, who changed her name to suit her persona, is a renowned and elusive filmmaker. She makes enigmatic and often strikingly sad, honest films that strip bare the characters and dig into their psyches. purchase at Amazon: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
Aquarium by David Vann [Atlantic Monthly Press]
–from my review: This is Vann’s first novel centered on a female protagonist. Twelve-year-old Caitlin lives in Seattle with her dockworker single mother. Older now, Caitlin looks back on this time with the wisdom one gains through age and experience. There’s a lighter tone than previous works until events draw to a boiling point for Caitlin and her mother. Every day after school Caitlin visits the aquarium to study the fish while waiting for her mom to finish work and retrieve her. She finds the various fish and sea life fascinating and allows herself contemplation and solitude. purchase at Amazon: Aquarium
Tightrope by Simon Mawer [Other Press]
-Feminist character Marian Sutro returns from WWII determined to find her place. from my review: Mawer writes exquisitely and Tightrope draws you in to Marian’s life, the consequences of her actions during WWII and how she copes in the present. On the cover, Marian looks like she’s in a Tamara de Lempicka painting. She’d be an ideal subject for the bold artist. Mawer includes cold war fears, atomic bombs, a gay scientist (Marian’s brother) as well as Marian’s love affair with a Russian Jew. purchase at Amazon: Tightrope
A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott [Doubleday]
–from my review: Kate Alcott writes spectacularly strong feminist female characters in historical fiction. Women who want to have careers and love. Women who juggle and manage both. Or learn from their decisions. They’re smart protagonists and Alcott has quickly become a must-read favorite author for me. She intermingles her fictional characters in real-life historical settings and it works. purchase at Amazon: A Touch of Stardust: A Novel
Aquarium By David Vann.
Grove Atlantic| March 2015.|266 pages |$24.00| ISBN: 978-0-8012-2352-7
David Vann writes dark and introspective in an appealing, engrossing manner. He’s one of my favorite authors. I interviewed him for his last novel Goat Mountain. His characters struggle with complex yet simple issues involving families and quiet brutality. There’s a brutal hunting accident in Goat Mountain, suicide in Caribou Island, unimaginable family tragedy and matricide in Dirt (my favorite of his works) or getting into the psyche of a school shooter in Last Day on Earth. His collection of stories Legend of a Suicide introduced readers to his darker themes and potent writing style. Dark beautiful writing isn’t for everyone. I tend to gravitate toward dark music and prefer darker themed, well-written novels and memoirs.
This is Vann’s first novel centered on a female protagonist. Twelve-year-old Caitlin lives in Seattle with her dockworker single mother. Older now, Caitlin looks back on this time with the wisdom one gains through age and experience. There’s a lighter tone than previous works until events draw to a boiling point for Caitlin and her mother. Every day after school Caitlin visits the aquarium to study the fish while waiting for her mom to finish work and retrieve her. She finds the various fish and sea life fascinating and allows herself contemplation and solitude.
“At twelve, I had only the sense of pressure, some premonition, riding each surge and waiting for the counterpull, believing, perhaps, that all would release at some point. Each day was longer than the days now, and my own end not yet possible. It was a simpler mind, more direct and responsive. We live through evolution ourselves, each of us, progressing through different apprehensions of the world, at each age forgetting the last age, every previous mind erased. We no longer see the same world at all.”
The aquarium becomes synonymous to real life. What Caitlin sees in the tanks she can directly relate to her emotions, her relationships and the girl she is now. At home Caitlin finds herself as stuck as the aquatic life in the aquarium. Vann writes: “Back in our aquarium, as territorial and easily found as any fish. We had only four places to hide in this tank: the couch, the bed, the table, and the bathroom.” When you’re young you might have some hopes for the future but you also remain tempered in your reality. Particularly if your reality is subsidized housing, ramen noodles, single parent no siblings bleak. When Caitlin wants something new or wants to go somewhere, her mother reminds her that she’s working so that Caitlin can survive. She’ll say: “It doesn’t make any sense. Welcome to the adult world, coming soon. I work so I can work more. I try not to want anything so maybe I’ll get something. I starve so I can be less and more. I try to be free so I can be alone. There’s no point to any of it. They left out that part.” She gets a real guilt trip. That’s a lot to endure. The mom also has a boyfriend and when he’s around Caitlin’s often quickly consigned to the background.
An old man befriends Caitlin at the aquarium. Her extensive knowledge and interest impresses him and they chat about everything. Then one day he wants to take her to introduce him to her mother. This involves an unraveling to an already precarious lifestyle. Turns out he’s her grandfather who took off on her mom over 15 years ago and left her to care for her dying mother alone. Her mom had to drop out of school. She tells Caitlin: “And now I have the worst jobs a person can have, with no money and no future. We’ll be okay, and you don’t need to worry, but I won’t be able to become anything.” Caitlin quickly learns that childhood isn’t always easy. But she’s not grown-up enough to realize that in time memories fade. Past traumas heal. Or there’s that possibility. In one alarming scene, Caitlin’s mother wants Caitlin to suffer the same indignity and hard work she did when she cared for her mother. She’s fed up that her father wants a relationship with his granddaughter. So vivid and disturbing. What is the end game? Why? There’s a resolution but the most important message might be: “The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable.”
Currently a professor at the University of Warwick in England and honorary professor at University of Franche-Comte in France, Ivy-educated Vann lives the ex-pat life and might be more popular abroad than in the states. For one thing, many readers only want to read likeable characters and one finds many awful characters in Vann’s work. His dark, meditative writing likely won’t be discussed with a bottle of wine at a book club. Everything he writes compels me to keep reading because he’s such an impressive writer. His ability to fabricate stories about the most unimaginable events and catastrophes with grace and clarity impresses me.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Grove Atlantic.
purchase at Amazon: Aquarium
“What I can remember is what I understood. I know my own grandfather said I should be killed and burned, but I can’t remember what I felt when he said that, I think I felt nothing, because I remember nothing. Anger might have been possible But I could not have felt any recognition, and for some reason I don’t understand now, I felt no fear.”
David Vann writes dark, introspective, mesmerizing novels. In his latest novel Goat Mountain the unimaginable happens for an 11-year-old boy on his first hunting expedition with his father and grandfather. The three generations must examine themselves and their relationships with each other as well as the consequences of their actions. It’s riveting, disturbing, violent and haunting. Vann is the winner of fourteen prizes, including France’s Prix Medici etranger, the Grace Paley Prize, the AWP Nonfiction Prize and France’s L’Express readers’ prize. He’s a professor at the University of Warwick in England.
I recently interviewed David via email.
Amy Steele: Hi David. It’s an honor to interview you. I admire your writing. There’s such emotional intensity and darkness in it. I don’t tend to be gushy with my interview subjects but when I’ve read almost everything someone’s written [haven’t read A Mile Down], I just have to admit it. Dirt is my favorite.
David Vann: Thank you, Amy! Very generous of you. And I appreciate your reviews and inclusion on your best books lists.
Amy Steele: How did you end up teaching in England and living in Turkey as well as New Zealand?
David Vann: My wife Nancy and I became residents of New Zealand ten years ago, in 2003, and we love it more each year. We’ve finally built a house and live there Dec-May, overlooking a beach and headlands and ocean and islands. We do a lot of watersports and also hike and mountain-bike right from the house into the mountains behind. It’s a very peaceful and easy place where I can relax and focus on my writing. We sail for a couple months each summer in Turkey, where we used to run charters (I was a captain on boats for about 8 years because I couldn’t get Legend of a Suicide published). We like the culture there, and the beautiful coves and bays and ancient ruins. And I love my teaching job in England at the University of Warwick. It’s just 10 weeks each autumn, teaching two grad workshops of 12 students each, fiction and nonfiction. Talented students, great faculty, and my wife and I love London and touring around England. It’s also nice to be closer to various European book launches and festivals. I used to teach in San Francisco, and it was a bummer to do three roundtrips to Europe during a semester.
Amy Steele: Alaska is in your first two novels (California in the next two). Do you get back there often? How long did you live there? What was it like growing up there?
David Vann: I was born on Adak Island in Alaska and spent my early childhood in Ketchikan, Alaska, until I was five or six. After that, my parents divorced and I lived in Alaska just one-third of each year, two-thirds in California, until my father died when I was thirteen. The rainforest in southeast Alaska is still vivid in my memories and mythic in my imagination. In all of my fiction, I write from landscape. You can think of it as a Rorschach test, a kind of blank page for the unconscious to fill with shape and pattern and meaning. My grandfather caught a 250-pound halibut once, and I always think of it as a metaphor for how writing works, looking over the side of the boat into the water and seeing something small grow and change shape and become impossible and enormous by the time it reached the surface. I was going back to Alaska every year, most recently on a book tour with the library system there, but I’ve missed a year or two now.
Amy Steele: How did your Native American background affect your upbringing and cultural identity?
David Vann: I didn’t know I was part Cherokee until after 2005, when my sailing memoir A Mile Down was published. I was contacted by the Cherokee nation because I was burying Chief David Vann in Google searches. It turns out he’s a great uncle several generations farther back. There was also a related chief with my father’s name, Jim Vann. My grandfather didn’t tell anyone about being one-fourth or one-eighth Cherokee, but looking back now, the men in my family and my new novel Goat Mountain only make sense to me in the context of that heritage. I think it’s very strange one can be so affected by heritage without even knowing about it. I’ve written an essay about this, which hopefully will appear soon, so I should perhaps stop here for now.
Amy Steele: What made you decide to study writing in college and grad school?
David Vann: I always wrote, even when I was a kid, telling our hunting and fishing stories then and giving them to my family as Christmas presents each year. So I never wondered what I wanted to study or do. I just never could get published or make any money through writing, so I had to do other jobs for a long time.
Amy Steele: What do you like about writing?
David Vann: I like the transformations by the unconscious that happen on the page, through landscapes changing shape and characters colliding. I’m watching more than writing, and the experience is the closest I have to religion, something that transforms the world and makes it meaningful and offers me a place.
Amy Steele: When you write do you tend to work from an outline or allow your characters or the plot to lead you?
David Vann: I never have any outline or plan or even any idea what the book will be about. This is exciting to me. Goat Mountain was the strangest and best, and I began to understand it only in the final fifty pages. It was a thrill ride. And it’s never plot that leads, but only character and landscape. What shocks me is how much pattern there is to the unconscious. In Caribou Island, for instance, there are four couples all reflecting on love and marriage, but that wasn’t a plan, and I thought I’d be writing in only one point of view but ended up writing in seven. The other thing that excites me is that the books are published almost the same as the first draft. No scene has been added, cut, or moved. I work very hard on line edits for months, polishing sentences, but even that doesn’t lead to much change. So readers experience basically the same thing that I did in first writing.
Amy Steele: Your first book, Legend of a Suicide, was about a son dealing with his father’s suicide which is something you experienced. Your other novels are also fairly autobiographical. In the prologue to Goat Mountain you write: “This is the novel that burns away the last of what first made me write, the stories of my violent family.” Are you no longer going to write novels about your family or that are violent?
David Vann: Goat Mountain is the end of my books that have family stories in the background. They’ve all been fiction, with all that happens made up (with the exception of the first three stories in Legend of a Suicide, which do contain many autobiographical facts and events), but they’ve been powered emotionally and psychologically by the disturbing stories of my family’s history. Once I finished Goat Mountain, I was afraid I might never write again, or never find any weight to my next characters, but then I wrote the next novel, about Medea, titled Bright Air Black, and she has as much weight as anyone else. That book is tragedy also, of course. But I’m working on a novel now, Aquarium, which is actually a comedy, not as in ha ha but as in nobody dies in the end. I should mention, by the way, that my novels actually are not violent compared to most other books and movies and TV series.
Amy Steele: Why did you want to tell the story in Goat Mountain?
David Vann: I didn’t. I was starting a novel set in the Australian outback and then just started writing Goat Mountain and had no idea what I was doing. But it is the material of the first short story I ever wrote, more than 25 years ago, so it was a novel waiting to happen, a landscape I couldn’t avoid writing about, the northern Californian ranch where we hunted deer each fall.
Amy Steele: What was the purpose of the bible stories?
David Vann: I didn’t know as I was writing, and I was surprised to see the holy trinity show up in my novel, since I’m an atheist. The poacher the boy shoots in the first chapter becomes a kind of Jesus figure, the buck he shoots becomes a kind of holy ghost, and his grandfather becomes a terrible god. The book is about the legacy of Cain, our desire to kill, and what rules hold us together and what happens when those rules are broken.
Amy Steele: Do you see Goat Mountain as a tale of morality or a coming of age story?
David Vann: I would never write a tale intending a moral, and there’s no moral in Goat Mountain. There’s only a battle. And it’s not a coming of age story really, either. It’s a Greek tragedy, 4 characters on a mountainside for two and a half days, told in real time. The boy is affected and does change and does become a man and more terrifyingly human.
Amy Steele: When you’re writing about killing a man or someone committing suicide what kind of inner dialogue goes on for how far to go in describing that situation to make it compelling and realistic without it being too gory to turn-off readers?
David Vann: I never think of readers. I follow what happens in the writing, transformations on the page, and question only whether I believe each sentence. I had a class with Grace Paley, and she said every sentence in fiction has to be true. I agree with that. And American readers generally have forgotten the last 2,500 years of literature anyway. We should never ask whether characters are likeable, for instance. That’s a new question. It’s been irrelevant for 2,500 years and is still irrelevant. But I should also address this question of gore. I don’t like or write horror or gore. I write tragedy, in which any violence is connected emotionally and psychologically, and there’s actually very little violence in my books comparatively. Horror is without this connection, just watching limbs sawn off in deadened entertainment, the same as our soldiers being taught to kill without feeling anything. Tragedy moves in the exact opposite direction, bringing us in close for conflict and empathy and catharsis.
[AS: If I could’ve followed up on this question I completely agree that it’s irrelevant whether characters are likeable or not, only that they’re compelling. I’ve enjoyed many well-written, engrossing novels with completely repellent characters. As for gore, I don’t enjoy reading gory books. I think that David Vann writes tragic prose with some horrific moments. There’s never any gratuitous violence. That wasn’t what I intended in the question. I like the answer regardless.]
Amy Steele: How are you able to revisit devastating, complex moments in your past and write clear-eyed, focused and rather calmly about them? Is it cathartic or therapeutic for you?
David Vann: It is great therapy. I feel much better now after writing four books of fiction about my family. But writing is more than therapy. It’s not only about truth. It’s also about the beautiful. It has an aesthetic aim that therapy does not. And the necessary distance in writing comes through an indirect focus, through writing about the landscape and letting the interior life of characters appear there instead of trying to write directly about feelings.
Amy Steele: Why do you write mostly fiction vs. nonfiction? Is it so you can (mostly) re-imagine events in the way you wanted them to transpire?
David Vann: I write mostly fiction because in nonfiction I can’t make up characters or events, so the stories are held in a kind of straightjacket, without full freedom to transform and surprise and take on unconscious pattern. I’m guessing that some nonfiction writers do find this freedom (my favorite memoir is Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and it feels entirely free and fluid). I still like writing nonfiction, and of course there’s no such thing as a true story, so it’s an odd field in which I should feel more freedom, but it’s more limited for me.
Amy Steele: What kind of music do you listen to when writing?
David Vann: I never listen to anything while writing. I sit in a room alone and wear earplugs. I don’t understand how anyone can write with music or especially in a café.
Amy Steele: Where do you do your best writing?
David Vann: In bed, in the morning, for two hours every day. It can be anywhere in the world, any hotel room or home or boat. And that’s my only writing. I don’t try to write later in the day, so there’s no best or worst writing, only the writing each day.
Amy Steele: What interested you in writing Last Day on Earth? It’s so creepy and sadly fascinating.
David Vann: My editor at Esquire assigned it to me, because I had a frightening history with inheriting all my father’s guns after his suicide, when I was thirteen. I shot out streetlamps in our neighborhood and aimed at the neighbors. I was able to get the full 1,500 pages of the police files about the shooter, unedited, the most complete information anyone has ever had about a school shooting. But no one wanted to read or even review my book, because we don’t really want to know how our shooters implicate us. They’re incredibly easy to profile, and could also be very easy to stop if we only wanted to. But of course we never will.
Amy Steele: Thank you so so much in taking the time to answer my questions. Hope to meet you in person one day.
David Vann: Thank you! It’d be great to meet. And thank you for such thoughtful questions.
Making lists of my favorite books, music, films proves challenging every year. Thus I’m making a list of 20. To put it in perspective, I’ve read 90 books at this writing. I have a few in progress. Here are the one’s that I keep thinking about and recommending to others [If I reviewed it, I linked to the review]:
1.The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu [Hogarth]
2. The Collective by Don Lee [W.W.Norton]
3. The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields [Pamela Dorman]
4. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz [Riverhead]
5. Dirt by David Vann [Harper]
6. The Last Nude by Ellis Avery [Riverhead]
7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green [Dutton]
8. Too Bright to Hear Too Loud To See by Juliann Garey [Soho]
9. The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus [Knopf]
10. Stay Awake: stories by Dan Chaon [Ballantine/Random House]
[these are listed in the order that I’ve read them]
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery [Riverhead, 2012]
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margo Livesey [HarperCollins, 2012]
Stay Awake: stories by Dan Chaon [Ballantine/Random House, 2012]
Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood by Charlotte Silver 
Make It Stay by Joan Frank [Permanent Press, 2012]
Divorce Islamic Style by Amara Lakhous [Europa, April 2012]
The Lion is In by Delia Ephron [March 2012]
Guts by Kristen Johnston [March 2012]
Threats by Amelia Gray [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012]
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green [Dutton, 2012]
Dirt by David Vann [Harper, April 2012]
I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern [IT Books, 2012]
Lizz Free or Die by Lizz Winstead [Riverhead Books, 2012]
MISS FULLER by April Bernard [SteerForth Press, 2012]
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian [Doubleday, 2012]
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus [Knopf, 2012]
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz [Riverhead, 2012]
Dirt by David Vann. Publisher: Harper (May 2012). Literary fiction. Hardcover. 272 pages. 978-0062121035.
To label Dirt eccentric would be an understatement. It’s Grey Gardens bizarre. It’s 1985. 22-year-old Galen lives with his mother in an unusual world filled with emotional dependency and varying types of abuse. Galen spends his days contemplating New Age philosophy and his taboo attraction to his 17-year-old cousin. His mother makes cucumber sandwiches for tea daily and they visit her mother [and Galen’s grandmother] in a nursing home. Suzie-Q, her daughter, just didn’t want to have her mother interrupt the idyllic existence she’s established with her adult son. Both suffer from varying degree of mental illness—Galen more prone to manic/angry episodes. Galen and Suzie-Q live off a trust fund established by Suzie-Q’s hard-working father but according to her it only allows for subsistence living—no college, no travel, no extravagances.
“It really is that bad. It’s like being no one. You think you’re something now, but it’s only because you can put your memories together. You put them together and you think that makes something. But take away the memories, or even scramble them out of order, and there’s nothing left.”
When Galen and Suzie-Q travel to the family cabin with Aunt Helen and her daughter [the object of Galen’s fantasies] and grandmother, everything crumbles. Helen’s after the money and always has been. Galen gets seduced by his cousin. Suzie-Q can no longer control her son or retain him in the bubble she’s had them living in for years. As Galen and his mother’s fighting escalates beyond reason or control, Vann delves into every psychoanalytical fantasy imaginable.
“It explains everything. It explains the truth about men, the truth that they only care about themselves. And you’re no different.”
While this is a creepy, dark story, Vann writes with a smart, captivating style. Dirt becomes immediately engrossing. I admire Vann’s ability to write about unpleasant/ difficult characters and situations in such a compelling manner. Reflections on the permanence of dirt and explosive power of the sun propel the story to its final tragic denouement. Dirt is disturbing and unnerving but David Vann is a superb storyteller and keeps you flipping pages wondering what atrocities will be uttered and performed.
purchase at Amazon: Dirt: A Novel