Author Archives: Fiction Advocate

Napoleon’s Other Waterloo

The Death of Napoleon

The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is coming up on June 18. If you are a history buff, and you want to understand this momentous occasion a little better, there are plenty of books to choose from. If you are a fiction buff, there is only one: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, first published in French in 1986 and newly reissued by NYRB Classics in a translation by Patricia Cleary.

It’s not hard to imagine that Emperor Napoleon, with his network of military loyalists, could have smuggled himself out of exile on the island of St. Helena by sneaking in a body double to take his place. And, further, it’s not hard to imagine his plan going terribly wrong in one way or another, leaving an elderly Napoleon stranded on the European mainland under a false identity, roaming the new world that his conquests have created, trying desperately to get himself back in the game. That’s the plot of The Death of Napoleon, anyway. Continue reading

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5 Questions for Angela Readman

Don't Try This at Home - Angela Readman

“I cut my boyfriend in half” are the first words in Angela Readman’s debut collection of stories. From there it only gets weirder. In “There’s a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop,” a mother turns—inexplicably—into Elvis. A girl helps her father with bizarre taxidermy in order to save the family in “The Keeper of the Jackalopes.”

Don’t Try This at Home includes the story that landed Angela Readman on the short list for the Costa Short Story Award in 2012, and the story that won it for her in 2013. You can read some of her best work here and here.

We asked the author 5 questions.

What do you think your readers think of you? Are they right? Continue reading

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The Crackpot Romantics

Auguste Dupin

Edgar Allen Poe’s early mystery stories are the inspiration for The Black Cat by J.M. Geever, a novel that Fiction Advocate is proud to publish. They are also an inspiration for the world’s most famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. In his new book, The Great Detective, Zach Dundas offers a popular history of Sherlock Holmes, which begins with this origin story about Edgar Allan Poe.

“With ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ ‘The Purloined Letter,’ and ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget,’” Paul Collins [an Associate Professor of English at Portland State University] told me, “Poe starts the tradition of the mystery that centers on a singular, charismatic detective, one who works outside the system and solves the mystery by observation and deduction rather than random chance.” Poe’s stories revolve around a Parisian oddball named Auguste Dupin. Significantly, his nameless and subservient roommate acts as narrator. When I later burrowed back into these numbers, all published in the 1840s, for the first time since high school, Dupin and his buddy struck me as obvious embryos of Holmes and Watson—though, this being Poe, they are significantly weirder. They live together in a giant, decaying mansion, keep the windows shuttered all day to produce artificial night, a.k.a. “the sable divinity,” and lounge about reading creepy books and going into crackpot-Romantic trances. Mrs. Hudson would have to clean the place out with a flamethrower.

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A Stranger in My Own Country by Hans Fallada

A Stranger in My Own Country

Is there an ethical voice in German literature in the 1930s?

Among the Oscar nominees this year (which included no shortage of Nazi tales, including Fury and The Imitation Game) Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel serves as Hollywood’s sweeping take on “fascism, Nazism, prison, uplift.” His whimsical anti-fascist flick is solemnly dedicated to the work of novelist Stefan Zweig, who fled the rise of the Nazis and, despairing at the rise of Nazism, killed himself in exile. Anderson tries to sum up the age at the end of the film, in an elegy to the fair and uptight concierge of the hotel: “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it—but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!”

Anderson has no obligation to realism, and yet speaking in epochs prevents his characters from feeling like regular people grounded in time and space. The concierge and his lobby boy are like mythological figures that illustrate history from a vantage point in the present. Real people don’t see themselves through such grand narratives.

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Gender in Cold Worlds

The Left Hand of Darkness

I first read Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness in eighth grade, and though for the years following I called it one of my favorite books, I couldn’t have given a very solid account of the story or its meaning.

I learned the word “envoy,” and the next few stories I would write, in pencil on lined notebook paper, featured alien envoys navigating a stubborn planet. I didn’t know enough about sex to recognize the power of omitting it from daily life, as LeGuin’s androgynous inhabitants of the planet Gethen do, but I wrote about big-headed green aliens who reproduced through a sort of meditative mind-meld, which I suspected to be more evolutionarily sophisticated than the mess of feelings and fluids that my own species engaged in. I didn’t know enough about the cold to recognize how it creates a bond among those who endure it together, as it does between the novel’s two central characters as they traverse the planet’s desolately beautiful ice fields, or its power to remove sex from the equation. What I recognized, and kept with me, were these words from the book’s introduction: “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”

And that, for an adolescent trying on artistry and atheism, was enough to make the book a favorite—story, metaphor, and meaning be damned.

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Mislaid by Nell Zink

Mislaid

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Nell Zink’s newest novel, Mislaid, has the official Jonathan Franzen seal of approval. The front cover blurb indicates that Franzen sees Zink as “A writer of extraordinary talent and range.” This is true, yet my dominant thought as I read the book was not “here is talent, here is range, here is writing at its best,” but rather, “this book is going to piss a lot of people off and I’m not sure whether it’s worth it.”

The novel opens with a description of Stillwater College, an all-girls school that is not a direct parody of either Wellesley or Sarah Lawrence. Yet, as is soon revealed, it is the typical picture of a women’s liberal arts college, full of bull-dykes and radical feminists and man-haters, which stereotypically amounted to the same thing in the 1960s and ’70s when the early sections of the book take place.

One of the main characters, Peggy Vaillaincourt, is everything her rich parents don’t want her to be. Within the first few pages of the novel, we find out that Peggy “was intended to be a man,” that “girlhood was a mistake,” and that she is a “thespian” (by which Zink means to convey a mishearing of lesbian). She is only happy many years later in life when she tells herself, in a moment of clarity, “You idiot… You’re a femme!” Only then does she find true love and happiness, when she wears pantyhose and makeup. I can already hear the roars of dismay from various factions of the feminist and LGBTQIA communities; as someone who considers herself a part of both, it is often hard to remember that the novel’s irreverence toward political correctness is (probably) purposeful. Whether it is satirical, however, is harder to decipher.

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They’ve Got Mail

Im Very Into You

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If you’re queer, if you’re punk, particularly if you’re a riot grrl, chances are you’ve read Blood and Guts and High School. If you’re none of the above, Kathy Acker likely falls into that category of people-you-know-you-should-read-in-order-to-score-a-date-with-a-hipster-chick-on-OkC. Like many women continually searching for literary role models in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I spent my late teens and early 20s in awe of Kathy Acker. I didn’t want to write like her and I didn’t really want to be her, but I did find myself enthralled by her work, which was more aggressive and more vibrantly raw than anything I’d read before (and most things I’ve read since). Readers who encounter her now may find themselves unimpressed by her experimentalism and willful perversion, but this is only because her interventions as a radical/queer/punk writer have come into vogue.

To read Kathy Acker is to be at once revolted and turned on, and these were also the emotions that surfaced in reading I’m Very Into You, a collection of her emails with MacKenzie Wark, who is currently a professor of media studies at the New School. I’m Very Into You is a book that has generated some controversy: people seem to agree Acker wouldn’t have wanted these emails published, but she is unable to protest or consent, having died in 1997. (It’s difficult to track down her haunting, disturbing Guardian article “The Gift of Disease” but well worth the effort, unless someone you love is dying of cancer, in which case you should not read it at all, ever.)

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Sixteen Writers on the State of My Uterus

Selfish Shallow and Self-Absorbed

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I began to seriously question whether or not I want to have kids one Wednesday at 9 p.m. while having my hair checked for lice. I was sitting in a black swivel chair, wearing a leopard-print hairdresser cape, as an older woman meticulously worked through my scalp with mint-scented conditioner, baking soda, and a fine-tooth comb.

For the past six months, since completing my MFA, I have been working as a nanny for a five-year-old girl to support my writing habit. The reason babysitters get paid as much as they do is because taking care of kids is hard. While my hours don’t come close to those of an actual parent, this sort of babysitting––working one-on-one with the same child, five days a week, for months––is much different than rolling in on Friday night, making popcorn, throwing on a movie, and then reading for three hours while the kids sleep. Instead, you get the whole range: highs, lows, joys, frustrations, emotional drain, and exposure to lice. Call it Parenting Lite. I’ve spent much time thinking about how, if writing while babysitting is challenging, could I ever be a writer and also an actual parent?

Meghan Daum has edited a collection of essays that addresses this topic: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. Everyone is supposed to want to have kids. If people choose not to have kids, they often feel compelled to come up with an excuse: they can’t afford it, they had a messed up childhood, they don’t like kids, or they aren’t able to have children. “When people ask why I don’t have kids,” writes Elliott Holt, “I sometimes say, ‘I’m forty; that ship has sailed.’ Or I say, ‘I’m focused on producing books, not children.’ Or, ‘I can’t afford to have a child on my own.’ That’s all true, it’s just not the full story.”

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