From My Bookshelf: What Happened to Anna K.? by Irina Reyn

Last week I finished reading What Happened to Anna K.?, the first novel by Irina Reyn, who immigrated to the United States as a child and whose book adds to the growing collection of excellent fiction being penned by Jewish transplants from Russia to the United States. It’s a retelling of Anna Karenina, through a distinctly Russian-Jewish immigrant lens. Highly recommended!

Late last month, Sandee Brawarsky introduced Reyn and her book, as well as another Russian-born fictionist, Sania Krasikov, whose story collection is titled One More Year. Both Reyn and Krasikov are among the “Five Under 35” whom the National Book Foundation will honor this year “as someone whose work is particularly promising and exciting and is among the best of a new generation of writers.”

From My Bookshelf: How Fiction Works, by James Wood


How Fiction Works by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pages. Hardcover, $24.00

Review by Erika Dreifus

Confession time: It’s more than a bit intimidating to be writing a review of a book by James Wood. That’s because Wood, professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard University, is perhaps best known for his own reviews, which appear frequently in the pages of the New Yorker, where he is now a staff writer (he previously spent 12 years as a literary critic for The New Republic and, at the age of 26, was appointed chief literary critic of The Guardian of London). He is accomplished and knowledgeable, and his book provides exactly the caliber of writing about writing – and the same disposition toward realist fiction – that his readers have come to expect.

Which is to say that How Fiction Works is a smart, demanding, and rewarding read. It has certainly enriched my understanding of its subject, and deepened my admiration for some of my most beloved authors. But as much as I enjoyed the book, I suspect it’s not for everyone.

Its focus is not necessarily on offering a guide to how you might begin to write your own story or novel. Rather, it’s a careful study of, well, how fiction works, from the perspective of someone who has given a great deal of thought and time to the subject. Prospective readers might want to brush up on their Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Naipaul before plunging in, and might also wish to keep a dictionary nearby (I had to look up the meaning of “quiddity,” myself, as in “Since the novel has hardly begun, [John] Updike must work to establish the quiddity of his character”).

For the readers thus prepared, How Fiction Works provides a series of useful insights into the difficult and often mysterious elements that go into creating a novel or short story. Wood’s goal in this book is to examine what he describes in the preface as “the essential questions about the art of fiction. Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognize a brilliant use of detail in fiction? What is point of view, and how does it work? What is imaginative sympathy? Why does fiction move us?”

Wood has some experience on the other side of the critic’s table, as a fiction writer, and in the end he seems eager for his readers to find this a book that “asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers.” As he works through all the questions, Wood sustains a larger, overarching point: “that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.”

Such are the threads running through the ten sections of How Fiction Works, sections focusing on staples such as detail, dialogue, and language, as well as sections less conventionally focused on “Flaubert and the Rise of the Flaneur” and “A Brief History of Consciousness.” Throughout, Wood relies on close readings from novels and short stories, from single sentences to chunky block paragraphs, to illustrate his points.

He also invokes the work of other critics, including two of his self-declared “favorites”: Viktor Shklovsky and Roland Barthes. Much to the book’s benefit, he also contributes his own decided opinions. Even if you don’t always agree with him (even before David Foster Wallace’s untimely passing in September 2008 the idea that Wallace’s work epitomized W.H. Auden’s suggestion that the novelist must “’become the whole of boredom’” seemed unduly harsh) you’ll appreciate Wood’s wit and his voice.

If literary fiction sometimes has a reputation for appealing to a relatively small readership, this very literary book about the art of fiction may similarly lack mass appeal. But just as literary fiction has the power to entrance and enthrall, so too does How Fiction Works possess the potential for illuminating the mysteries of our art and for instructing us on how to create it ourselves.

(c) 2008 Erika Dreifus
A version of this review originally appeared in The Writer magazine.

The Wednesday Web Browser: Getting Grants, Reading Your Work, and a Recent Read

Want some tips on winning grants for your writing? Check out this sage advice from BJ Epstein.
I was wandering around Lisa Romeo’s blog, and found a link to a terrific article Lisa published offering tips for reading your work in public.
I’ve posted some thoughts on Danit Brown’s Ask for a Convertible over on my other blog.

From My Bookshelf: ASK FOR A CONVERTIBLE, by Danit Brown

Over the past week or so I’ve had the pleasure of reading Danit Brown’s new book of connected short stories, Ask for a Convertible. This is a new twist on Jewish-American writing, with most of the stories focused on a Jewish girl–born in Israel to an American father and an Israeli mother–who moves to Michigan in the early 1980s with her parents. (The character is then 12 years old, which makes her my more-or-less contemporary, and heightens my appreciation for the now quasi-historical details appearing through the work.)

At some moments the book made me laugh out loud: “In the city phone book–what luck–the other Marvin Greenberg had no problem with listing his full name: Marvin Alvin Greenberg, as if Marvin and Greenberg together didn’t already invoke massive amounts of nostril hair, golf pants, and game after game of shuffleboard.” At others, especially with some of the depictions of Israel (though it’s important to remember that when the Israeli-born protagonist returns to her birthplace in her twenties it’s not exactly a happy homecoming; the unappealing way the setting comes across is surely colored by the unhappy consciousness through which it is filtered), I found myself–what’s the right word–disillusioned? See, for instance, this paragraph:

“In Tel Aviv, where Osnat lived, there was a McDonald’s on every other block, and a Dunkin’ Donuts near Rabin Square, and still everything felt to Osnat as if had been shifted a little–a smaller, dirtier, almost-America–as if someone had gone through her house and rearranged the furniture and all the closets so that she couldn’t find her shoes….When guys excused themselves and didn’t close the bathroom door behind them, Osnat gave them the benefit of the doubt: maybe it was a cultural difference. When they walked down the street, she tried not to stare if they stopped to urinate against trees and parked cars. One time, she saw a man peeing against the wall of a gas station, ten meters away from a restroom. Now, everywhere she went with Jeannie, the two of them stumbled onto naked men, sunbathers who decided to flip over right as they walked by, boys skinny-dipping at the beach. The bus stops reeked of urine.”

The book pulled me in immediately, and the crackling liveliness of the early stories kept me going even when I began to wonder how one or another story was going to end up “connected” with the others and, yes, began to wonder if the collection might have been stronger if two or three of the pieces had been left out. But that minor kvetching aside, I found this book an impressive achievement, one that makes me look forward, very much, to seeing what its author will do next.

You can preview Ask for a Convertible by reading two of its stories, “Hands Across America” (yes, THAT Hands Across America) and “The Dangers of Salmonella,” on

From My Bookshelf: The Untelling, by Tayari Jones

Although I somehow have yet to meet her in person, I have come to know and admire author Tayari Jones through the Internet, first through her interview with Dan Wickett, and more recently through her own excellent blog. So when Tayari very generously offered an exchange–my e-books for a copy of one of her books–I jumped at the chance.

Largely due to Anne’s having recently mentioned it on her blog, I asked Tayari for a copy of The Untelling. Good choice, Erika!

I finished the novel Labor Day weekend, and I’m still thinking about it. Since I haven’t yet organized my own thoughts with the lucidity or comprehensiveness the book deserves, I’m going to rely on Anne once again. Please do check out her very thoughtful and on-target discussion of The Untelling here. And then follow our shared enthusiastic recommendation to read it yourself.