Saturday, May 4, 2013

"Henriette Lazaridis Power"

Henriette Lazaridis Power is a first-generation Greek-American who has degrees in English literature from Middlebury College; Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar; and the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Harvard for ten years, serving as an academic dean for four of those. She is the founding editor of The Drum, a literary magazine publishing exclusively in audio form. A competitive rower, Power trains regularly on the Charles River in Boston.

Her new novel is The Clover House.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Power's reply:
I’ve had the great pleasure of reading two books in a row by writers I know, and while they are very different novels, both of them have struck me with their excellence at conveying an entire world and a set of ideas. I’ve followed those two up with a novel by a writer I don’t know. But I’ll start with the books by friends first.

I don’t cry at novels, generally. Movies and television (even commercials), yes. Sporting events, ditto. But for reasons unknown to me, it’s a rare novel that elicits my tears. Ann Patchett seems to have the knack, with both Bel Canto and State of Wonder working their lachrymose magic. As does the Greek writer Elias Venezis, whose Aioliki Gi made me awkwardly wipe my face as I finished it on a crowded plane. Chris Castellani’s All This Talk of Love hit me powerfully--not only on an emotional level that had me wiping my eyes as I turned page after page, but also on an intellectual level as I admired the crafting of the story, the richly drawn characters. Castellani’s language is eloquent and elegant; his insights into families and individuals are profound and moving. But I was struck early on by one of his simpler sentences. As Antonio Grasso, the family patriarch, walks the streets of his Wilmington neighborhood, he thinks of the village he left behind in Italy and of the way his fellow immigrants have tried to replicate that life in America. They have failed, he thinks, “because there’s never two of anything.” To me, that phrase evokes the ideas at the heart of Castellani’s book--the difficulty of repetition, the impossibility of recreating even the most deeply loved experience in a new time and place. It’s striking that a novel so focused on the poignantly ephemeral should leave such a lasting mark, as I think it will on anyone who reads it.

Ladette Randolph’s Haven's Wake immerses the reader in the world of a Mennonite farm in Eastern Nebraska. There’s a fascinating combination of starkness and richness in Randolph’s prose and in the novel’s setting. Richness in the sounds and the specific look and feel of the farmland and the meadows beyond it, and starkness in the clean and clear prose that evokes that world and all the complicated and tangled relationships of the Grebel family. I don’t want to give the impression that there is anything cold about this book, though, since that would be far from the truth. Randolph is dealing with powerful emotions here--family bonds frayed or maintained despite tragic experiences, the challenges of faith in the modern world--but she does so with tremendous control. The novel feels in a way like a sparely furnished Mennonite home (or at least what I imagine one to be like) peopled by intense and complex characters. The book is structured in a series of very short chapters (three or four pages at a time) focusing on the point of view of various characters. Even though I could have read the book in these small bites, the pace and the depth of the narrative made me want to keep reading, taking in more and more.

Having studied English literature in college and graduate school, I’ve sort of imprinted, like a duckling, on writers from the UK. It seems I can’t go too long without reading a novel by a British writer. So after Castellani’s and Randolph’s novels, I pulled Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending from my pile. Barnes' narrator is a bit mysterious to me, his narration likely unreliable, and the narrative arc is--so far--not entirely clear. I’m enjoying this uncertainty, along with sentences I admire for their sounds and diction. “Water fizzed and steam rose at the impact,” Barnes says of a woman tossing a frying pan into a sink, “and she laughed, as if she had enjoyed causing this small havoc.” I love the use of the word havoc there--such a grand idea for an action contained in a kitchen sink. And later: “History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.” The idea here is intriguing--and I am an easy mark for reflections on history and a personal past--but the construction of the sentence is masterful, too. The reference to Old Joe Hunt, the narrator’s schoolteacher, pulls the reader back to the past, and builds into the sentence itself a sense of correction, revision, alteration. I’m struck by this notion of how history is shaped, and immensely satisfied to see a significant moment in the novel (the end of Part One) constructed so beautifully.
Visit Henriette Lazaridis Power's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue