Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book rec: The Fiction Class

The Fiction ClassWhen I read a book that I really love, I want to talk about it ASAP. Such is the case with The Fiction Class.  I actually started this book a week or two and then put it down again, which is never a good sign -- but from the time I picked it up again yesterday, I could not stop reading.   I think this was because it took the main character, Arabella, some build-up to win me over; I don't immediately identify, I guess, with a 38-year-old writing teacher.  But a few chapters in, I became deeply invested in Arabella, who is entirely sympathetic in her self-described obsession with her ailing mother and her romance with an older man she isn't entirely sure she likes. Arabella and her mother, Vera, are beautifully drawn characters who are entirely believable. The supporting cast -- the older man, Chuck, and the other members of Arabella's fiction writing class -- quickly become real as well.

I loved this book, too, for its tone. It reads with the formality of literary fiction rather than commercial fiction, but it also has flashes of humor that had me periodically laughing out loud. And the end, as Arabella and her mother Vera come to terms with Vera's life, had me in tears. This book felt genuine, though, not like a tearjerker at all. I hate to repeat adjectives, but I'm sticking with beautiful.

Here are a few quotes that I loved, either for their glimpse of the writing life or for their wisdom:

On Thursday morning, Arabella wakes up and goes directly to her computer. This is her regular routine: Sit down at the computer, stare at her bookshelves, look at the computer screen, play three rounds of Spider Solitaire, stare out the window at the Hudson River, open up the document she is working on, read the last chapter she wrote, and change some of the punctuation. Pick one of the books on her bookshelf, look at the ending of it, and try to figure out why that ending works. Look at the framed picture of her mother that she keeps on her desk, an eight-by-ten glossy from an old church directory. Play Spider Solitaire. Delete the changes she just made to the punctuation. Stare bleakly at the last chapter of her novel. (p. 59)

If you don't start work like that on a regular basis, you are a better person than I.

The exercise takes most of the rest of the class, and then they read them aloud. Arabella is struck, as always, by how well people are able to write in such brief periods of time. In fact, she has noticed that people often do better writing these short exercises than the longer pieces. She supposes it is easier to stay focused. So much of bad writing has to do with losing track of what you are writing about.  (p. 227)

That just rang very true to me. I've re-read more than one piece of mine where I've wondered, why I am I writing about this, rather than that? THAT is the interesting part!

Yet another wonderful thing about this book is that it has all Arabella's writing assignments that she gives her class sprinkled in. For instance, I like the first one:

Make a list of your five obsessions.
Now write a few paragraphs about one of them.

Feel  free to share your own five obsessions in the comments section (I will). And I think it goes without saying, I recommend this book!


Guinevere said...

My five obsessions:

1. Cats. My own cat, Buffy, who I love dearly, and rescuing/fostering other cats. I'm not just prone to anthropomorphizing cats -- I sometimes assign feline characteristics to humans, as well.

2. WW2 Polish history. I know a ridiculous amount about the subject. Post-war, my family that emigrated to America was never able to make contact again with the family in Poland that was left behind, so this is an inherited obsession. What happened to them?

3. My husband, MJ. For too many reasons to list, but mostly the part where he is adorable.

4. Education. I've been in school, full-time or part-time, for 20 of my 26 years, and I expect to take classes in something or another for the rest of my life. I feel lost when I'm not learning something.

5. My family. Making sense of the insanity from which I sprang. :p

Jen said...

1. My husband - I adore him and would do anything for him.
2. writing - even if its not a novel, a thought, a poem, a dream, I love to write
3. Reading - anything I can get my hands on, even though chick lits are my favorite!
4. Friends, family & my cats! - What can I say, I love them all!
5. Baking - I love cookies, pies, anything to have the smell of cinnamon or apples just makes the house seem so much more homey!

I'll be checking this book out!

Guinevere said...

Jen, sounds like we have a lot in common. I probably should have included the written word in my list of obsessions -- I can't go a day without reading, and our home decor sort of revolves around words itself! And I love baking... I'm still trying to figure out a way to work recipes into the blog!