Saturday, April 10, 2010

Deborah Batterman

Deborah Batterman is the author of Shoes Hair Nails.

Her stories have appeared in anthologies as well as various print and online journals, including Many Mountains Moving, Sistersong, Dunes Review, The MacGuffin, The Alsop Review, three candles, Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies, Prose Toad, and The Potomac.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently facilitated a book discussion/writing workshop centered around The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam narrative that straddles the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction. The book was this year’s selection for "The Big Read" in Westchester, NY, the NEA-initiated program that makes reading a community activity for a month or two, and I found it both poignant and haunting. It’s a classic example of how a writer transforms an autobiographical experience into powerful fiction and compelled me to go back to his first post-Vietnam book, If I Die in the Combat Zone. Reading these books back-to-back was a chance to see the evolution of a gifted writer – from twenty-something-year-old fresh out of the war, recounting his experiences in straightforward nonfiction, to forty-something-year-old looking back through the lens of fiction. The best stories beg to be retold again and again, searching for a framework that is, in a way, organic to the underlying themes. In this case, the fragmented, episodic framework of The Things They Carried brilliantly evokes the nature of a war that was unlike any other.

Page turner is not ordinarily the term that comes to mind when a book is rich with implication. Yet that’s exactly how it felt to read Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’ riveting account of the Kafka-esque hell endured by a Muslim-American in the wake of Katrina. When the warnings began coming, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a painting contractor in New Orleans, chose to stay behind; his wife, understanding his need to watch over their properties and their tenants’ homes, opted to leave with their children. If Abdulrahman does not necessarily believe it will be as bad as they say, Kathy isn’t taking any chances; when it all blows over they’ll be united. In the hands of Dave Eggers, a masterful writer who used fiction as the means for telling a harrowing story of boy soldiers in the Sudanese civil war (What Is the What?), the unfolding of events as they really happened is all he needs in Zeitoun. The cover of the book depicts a man paddling a canoe, an image that resonates. He’s a man with a sense of purpose, spiritual in its dimension. Maintaining even a vestige of that spirit when racial profiling forces him into a makeshift prison, no contact with the outside world, make Abdulrahman Zeitoun a survivor of something much more profound than a category 3 hurricane and the catastrophic flooding that ensued.

Another book I recently read and really admired for the way it melds the sociopolitical and the personal is Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women. Moving back and forth in time and spanning continents, the novel weaves a tapestry of five generations of women, beginning with Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a suffragette in early twentieth century England who starved herself for the cause. Each of the women’s stories becomes a reflection of the era in which she lives; the interconnectedness of their lives becomes the thematic underpinning of a thought-provoking and very moving novel.

I’m always reading poetry, and sometimes I need to immerse myself in a particular poet’s work rather than reading random poems. This week it’s W.S. Merwin. As a Princeton undergraduate, he apparently got some words of wisdom from John Berryman. Here are the closing stanzas to his poem, “Berryman.”

I had hardly begun to read

I asked how you can ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don’t write

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the next books I plan to read: Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers, a poetic writer if ever there was one. The first book of his that I read was The Time of Our Singing, and I was hooked. Both that novel and The Gold Bug Variations are infused with physics, music, exquisite language, and artful storytelling. Did I mention that I think he’s brilliant?
Visit Deborah Batterman's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue