Fifth Annual High School Writing Contest Winners Selected

Contact: June Saraceno
jsaraceno [at] sierranevada [dot] edu

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

(Incline Village, Nevada) Sierra Nevada College’s English Program has announced the winners of the 5th annual High School Writing Contest, a national competition which honors high school juniors and seniors in three categories: creative nonfiction, fiction and poetry.

The winners receive a cash prize, an invitation to the awards ceremony on Jan. 9, a scholarship offer from Sierra Nevada College, a private, non-profit four-year university in Incline Village, Nevada, and possible publication in the Sierra Nevada Review.

Bryce Bullins, managing editor for the Sierra Nevada Review said, “Selecting just a few winners from such a large pool was an especially difficult process considering the caliber of work these young writers submitted.”

Creative writing professors and Sierra Nevada Review staff evaluated a record number of submissions. Chosen from over 525 entries, the winning submissions came from students across the United States, including Maryland, Colorado, Florida, Arizona, and New Jersey.

“I am inspired and energized after reading these diverse and passionate stories. The future of the written word is clearly in good hands,” said Gayle Brandeis, the college’s Distinguished Writer in Residence and an award-winning novelist.

In creative nonfiction, first place went to Lindsay Emi, Westlake Village, California, for “Latin Class in Seven (VII) Parts.” Second place went to Darla Macel Anne Canales, Erie, Colorado, for “Oven.” Third place went to Gabriel Braunstein, Arlington, Massachusetts, for “Family on the Commuter Rail.” The nonfiction Local’s Prize went to Isabella Stenvall, San Luis Obispo, California, for “Wars with Numbers.”

Finalists in creative nonfiction were Emily Zhang, for “Family History,” Oriana Tang for “Sister,” Aletheia Wang for “Scar,” Jack Priessman for “A Merciless Deed,” and Annie Harmon for “Reflected.”

In fiction, first place went to Emily Zhang, Boyds, Maryland, for “Midwestern Myth.” Second place went to Lucy Silbaugh, Wyncote, Pennsylvania, for “Burrowing.” Third place went to Laura Ingram, Disputanta, Virginia, for “Absolute Value.” The fiction Local’s Prize went to Erin Stoodley, Ventura, California, for “Ghosts.”

Finalists in fiction were Lindsay Emi for “For My Daughter,” Jessica Li for “Ellen and Su-Ji,” Tatiana Saleh for “Laundry,” Madison Hoffman for “Genderfuck,” and Oriana Tang for “Lara.”

In poetry, first place went to Oriana Tang, Livingston, New Jersey, for “Bildungsroman.” Second place went to Catherine Valdez, Miami, Florida, for “Mami.” Third place went to Ruohan Miao, Chandler, Arizona, for “Dust Bowl.” The poetry Local’s Prize went to Ava Goga, Reno, Nevada, for “Notes on Repression.”

Finalists in poetry were Emily Zhang for “Transitory,” Katia Kozachok for “Primordial Roar,” Allie Spensley for “Palo Verde,” Emma Symmonds for “Purging,” and Jessica Prescott for “Daughter of Zeus, Lover of Mine.”

Winners in each category received $500 for first place, $250 for second and $100 for third. The Local’s Prize honored student writers from Nevada and California with a $100 prize. These students are also eligible for a $20,000 scholarship to attend Sierra Nevada College.

The winning students have been invited to read their work in an awards ceremony on Friday, Jan. 9, 2015 at Sierra Nevada College alongside highly acclaimed writers Suzanne Roberts and Alan Heathcock. They will be reading at 7 p.m. Friday in Sierra Nevada College’s Prim Library as part of the college’s low residency MFA creative writing program.

The Sierra Nevada Review’s annual issue publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by emerging and nationally recognized authors. All High School Writing Contest winners will be considered for publication in the 2015 issue, which releases in May.

The 6th annual High School Writing Contest runs Sept. 1-Nov. 1, 2015. Guidelines can be found at http://www.sierranevada.edu/writer

Book Review: The Waste Land, by John Beer

Beer Waste Land

Searching the Rubble: The Waste Land and Other Poems by John Beer

Bryce Bullins

2010

Poetry

$14.00; 110 pages

Ann Arbor: Canarium Books

ISBN 978-0-98223796-4-9

 

The audacity of naming your book after T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece is staggering. Mark that audacity a notch higher when the cover of the new book is a facsimile of the original, appearing identical in all aspects spare the author’s name. It sets up an expectation so high that if the mark is not reached, utter disappointment and even a touch of anger may surface. It’s a good thing then that John Beer’s latest collection hits that mark and goes a step further, serving up a remarkable example of contemporary poetry both in style and content.

Beer doesn’t try to copy Eliot as much as he tries to reframe the foundations of “The Waste Land” for a new age. Structurally, both poems contain five distinct sections and tones of voice and are closely tied to one another in overall arc and theme. Beer uses just as many allusions as Eliot did, though the footnotes are lacking (more on that later). Beer avoids the lyricism of Eliot in favor of more casual, though no less direct, prosody (in a way, Beer’s brute address creates a kind of lyricism in itself). Beer seems to take a slight jab, albeit in jest, at Eliot in the second part of his “Waste Land”: “O O that T.S. Eliot / he’s such a shrinking violet / and if you think I sigh a lot / try life with T.S. Eliot.” Beer self-deprecatingly admits that his “Waste Land” doesn’t have the same weight of Eliot’s but in the next two lines, Beer iterates quite subtly that “…you don’t need to be a hero.”

In truth, Beer’s “Waste Land” does carry weight and heft to it. Rather than writing through the lens of a world ravaged by the end of the first World War, Beer writes through the gorilla glass of the 21st century and the end of the most protracted conflict in U.S. history.

Beer’s “Waste Land” is our reflection in that glass, staring back at us, sometimes mockingly, sometimes sincere, but always with a sharpened edge.

The anaphora of the unknown city at the beginning of the poem is the most strikingly obvious example of this new world in that the city itself is never mentioned (though alluded to in the title as either Chicago or possibly New Orleans) but the vague descriptions given to the city could be for any place on this planet and speaks to the ever encroaching globalization in which everything becomes so blurred and hegemonic that scarcely any identity yet remains. It’s simultaneously foreign and familiar, cultivating a sense of unease but utter captivation with the words on the page that seem to sink into our marrow the more we read them.

The other poems that make up the “Other Poems” section of Beer’s book are equally exceptional in their own right. Punctuated by dry wit and a practiced tightness, each poem flows smoothly and interconnects with one another in a showcase of excellent book layout. For example, the three poems entitled “Flowers”: each begins the same way, verbatim, followed by a new situation for the couple in the poem. The emotions that these situations bring to the surface are reinforced and expanded upon over the pieces that sit in between each version of “Flowers” creating an overarching narrative. It’s a fascinating style choice and one that I found worked quite well.

“Sonnets to Morpheus” is a section rife with humor (because the Morpheus in question is not that of Greek myth but the Morpheus of the Wachowskis Matrix film trilogy) and seriousness. Beer sprinkles lines taken directly from the films such as Neo’s now famous line “I know kung fu” and pairs it with beautiful prosody such as “Their music fell into my heart / like an unexpected taxi” and “…The children line up / beside the pond. They never realize / we poison them with their own reflected breath.” It is a testament to Beer’s ability as a poet that he is able to combine such disparate topics together yet create something thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking.

The only thing baffling about Beer’s collection is that he leaves out the footnote markings for the notes that appear in the back of book. For a book that is trying to imitate Eliot’s original, it comes as a glaring omission. However, rather than vexed or annoyed with the discovery of the notes, it made me thirsty to revisit Beer’s words immediately, catching the nuances and allusions that had been missed on a first reading. Like Eliot before him, Beer can be read for the sheer aesthetics of the line or for the expertness of his craftwork that make those aesthetics possible.

Beer’s language and the pure emotive feeling his poems exude make each one feel as if it is city unto itself. They are built from the ground up to be a marvel and each one feels different than the last, crafting a truly unique voice over the entire body of work. Of course there are thematic elements that tie them all together, just as there are common similarities between cities that make them feel the same, but it’s the subtle changes and the atmosphere of each that makes them special and significant in their own right.

Bryce2

Bryce Bullins is a first year graduate student focusing on poetry but has worked previously on the Sierra Nevada Review as an undergraduate student. He received his BA in English with a minor in Music from Sierra Nevada College in 2014.

 

Black Rock Press Visit

by Tom Loeschner

 

On Wednesday morning Sierra Nevada Review staff members paid a visit to the local press, Black Rock Press, at University of Nevada Reno. Staff members Amy and Inge run the Press and teach bookmaking to students at UNR.

black rock press

 

Machines dot the concrete floor of the lower room in the Jot Travis Building. The press shop is a wonderful world of flywheels, oscillating ink rollers, and 100,000’s of metal and wood types. Some of the printing presses date back to the last century while others are newer.

Various hand crafted books made in house are on display.Holding a handcrafted book by Black Rock Press gives the same experience as seeing a new painting or feeling a handmade ceramic bowl, you can see and feel the work that went into it.

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The vibrancy of the ink, the layout of the fonts, unique bindings and the texture of quality paper gives their books a truly artisan feel.

Black Rock Press 3

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Tom Loeschner Loeschneris an aspiring writer and student at Sierra Nevada College. While Tom is an Incline Village, Nevada native, he has lived in both Washington and California. Tom enjoys writing creative non-fiction, climbing, fly fishing, and spending time with his wife, Andrea, and their dog, Munchichi.

Announcing the 2014-2015 Sierra Nevada Review Editors

Welcome to our new student editors:

Rebecca Victoria Ramirez Ramirezholds a BA in English, graduating Cum Laude, from California State University, Stanislaus. She is currently pursing her MFA in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. She is a writer of both poetry and non-fiction, with poetry from her youth being published in her city’s anthologies. She resides with her four children and partner in Northern California.

 

 

 

Bryce Bullins Bryce2is a first year graduate student focusing on poetry but has worked previously on the Sierra Nevada Review as an undergraduate student. He received his BA in English with a minor in Music from Sierra Nevada College in 2014. Bryce currently lives in Pahrump, NV. 

 

 

 

 

 

Greg Gonzalez Gonzalezis a Junior attending Sierra Nevada College as a Creative Writing major. He currently resides in Incline Village Nevada, but he is originally from Sacramento California. His focus is in fictional writing and has completed two novel manuscripts. One day he envisions himself not only writing books, but he wants to own two restaurants as well.

 

 

 

Tom Loeschner Loeschneris an aspiring writer and student at Sierra Nevada College. While Tom is an Incline Village, Nevada native, he has lived in both Washington and California. Tom enjoys writing creative non-fiction, climbing, fly fishing, and spending time with his wife, Andrea, and their dog, Munchichi.

 

 

 

 

Meredith Crosby Crosbyresides on the north shore of Lake Tahoe in California but calls South Carolina home. She is currently a senior at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, Nevada. She will graduate with a Bachelors in English and a minor in creative writing. An avid hiker and nature enthusiast, Meredith can be found most days wandering with her pitbull rescue mix, Prudence, in Tahoe’s pristine wilderness. She also has a contemporary dance background and is an aspiring yogi.

 

Courtney Berti Courtney Bertigraduated from Sierra Nevada College with her BFA in Creative Writing. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in fiction. She lives in South Lake Tahoe with her hairy boyfriend and her fuzzy dog who both have a tendency to resent her very hairless laptop.

 

Book Review: Of Gods & Strangers by Tina Chang

Chang front cover rgb low res

by Laurie Macfee

2011
Poetry
$15.95; 103 pgs.
NY: Four Way Books
ISBN 978-1-935536-17-8

When I began Tina Chang’s entrancing Of Gods & Strangers, Monty Python could be heard in the back of my mind saying, “And now, for something completely different.” From the form of poems on the pages, to titles like the indescribably wonderful “Bitch Tree”, “Self-Portrait as Empress Dowager” or “Flesh Elegy”, to the content, which sweeps from personal to historical to political, I knew this was going to be a completely different ride.

I read with a quickening, as if I couldn’t turn pages fast enough, even while wanting to slow down and savor lines. My heart beat faster, the way it does with a novel I can’t put down: it is 3am and the arc of someone’s voice won’t release me. This is an important and heart-breaking work by the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. How can a book be set down, upon reading lines like these, found in “Substantial”:

If I try to tell the truth, parachutes the size of fists
rain down in a territory in which they are not welcome.

If I live out my lies, I see a woman’s sketched face
on the charcoal surface of a field where she

breaks apart on the pond’s puzzle. I get on all fours,
low to the ground as if in an emergency.

I hide under desks, cover my ears, put on
a gas mask to look like a skeleton of an extinct insect.

Perhaps that was my ancestor’s story and not mine
when the blast of sirens rang through the city….

The way Chang layers images (fists, skeleton) with locations (territory, under desks), emotions (not welcome) with imperatives (an emergency), sounds of words (extinct insect) with sounds in the narrative (blast of sirens), then lands softly on a political/historic/familial truth (ancestor’s story not mine) that leads us to a simple statement hidden a couple lines later, “Who is listening / if not me?” All this makes her work immediately compelling, haunting, masterful.

Structurally, Chang’s poems are a study in form. How the lines sit on the page inform the reading of each. She uses numbers to create lists, prose-like poems (though there appear to be purposeful breaks), traditional structures like couplets or tercets, long sweeping as well as short chopped lines, solid masses of text, a poem that is 3/4s italics, double spaces between lines, stars to separate stanzas, words instead of numbers in a series (one, two, trois, four), or words that wander a page. The result is a push-pull, and we are falling, then wrapped, bound in the expected and repeated embrace of a couplet then buffeted into intellectualism found in contemporary indexing. But woven through this diversity of appearances is a personal thread of identity, so that it does not feel like she is trying on dresses so much as showing us the complexity of her owned wardrobe.

Chang writes fearlessly from a woman’s standpoint, whether talking about break-ups or “Sex Gospels”, genocide or natural disasters. Some of her experiences echo my own, such as “The Story of Girls” but most do not, like the series of ten poems sprinkled throughout the book about the last Chinese Empress Dowager. However I am grounded in her lyric and social consciousness, the way she trusts the reader to make links between ideas without spelling it out: “I dream I am whipping a donkey / and I don’t want to be whipping a donkey…./ Love is breaking me.” She strips away all pretense, is unblinking and raw. In “Possibility”, Chang writes that when she was a girl, her mother’s lover bought her a small cross and sat her on his lap, how she thought “he could be my lover too”, the fierce and almost brutal reality she ends with, “The man sat still, letting the young girl / kiss him, then never came back. / This is how dark it can get, the heart says. / And the heart fasts for years until / it is lean.”

Chang’s images can jar, like “The butchers with their smeared aprons croon with knives” in her poem “Baguio”. They can seduce with epic or horrible beauty, like the opening “All night long there was digging, and the bodies like accordions / bent into their own dying instruments, and even after this, / after the quake, there was, in news reports, still singing” from the poem “Praise”. They can touch on the philosophical or self aware, “What is it that I want / in all these disappearing cities?” or the humorous, “I was sitting on the bitch tree, smirky and small.” But the great joy in reading Chang’s Of Gods & Strangers is her endings. Her poems are waves that carry you to the place you didn’t know you needed to go, and crash you.

I read the poem “Foraging and Dodging” maybe seven times. It begins with a stranger, which links to the title of the book, and explores the way love can wound, “Think of the horseshoe, the imprint / it made when thrown against / the door. Think of the woman / who dodges it and keeps loving / the man who threw it.” There is such ferocious revelation and hope in how Chang navigates the strangers who rule our lives as gods. The last stanza ends, “as she drove away, the bend / in the road coming into her / field of vision, as if life / loved her back, as if / she had a chance.”

Buy this book today. Ask me if you can borrow my copy. Check it out of the SNC Poetry Center. Whatever you do, this is a book to be read.

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Laurie Macfee_headshotLaurie Macfee is in the MFA Writing/Poetry program at Sierra Nevada College. Currently, she is the Redfield Fellow in Book Arts at the Black Rock Press, Poetry Editor of the Sierra Nevada Review, and an adjunct in the art department at the University of Nevada, Reno. She lives with her husband artist Joseph DeLappe and their cats Pixel and Izzie in Reno.

Book Review: We the Animals by Justin Torres

Review by Chelsea Archer

we-the-animals

 

Justin Torres

We the Animals

2012

Mariner Books

9780547844190

“Now a boy is of all wild beasts the most difficult to manage. For by now the more he has the foundation of prudence not yet fitting up, he becomes crafty and keen, and the most insolent of wild beasts. On this account it is necessary to bind him, as it were, with many chains” (Plato).

This quote opens a novel telling of wild youth, family dysfunction, brotherly bonds, and the unconditional love that persists in the most trying of settings. Justin Torres’ We the Animals is a slender yet heartrending debut novel that tracks the unnamed narrator and his two brothers through their less than perfect childhood.

Justin Torres molds this fictional world into a quasi-autobiographical tale written in first person plural, a less-well-used and complicated ploy that’s instantly noticeable (much like Jeffery Eugenides’ bestselling novel The Virgin Suicides). But through it all, the mesmerizing story of a boy reaching for manhood stands all on its own, pulling the reader toward absolution.

The “We” are three sons of an interracial couple, Ma and Paps. When the book begins, the narrator is nearly 7, and his two brothers only a few years older. They stick closely together, eating, playing, and fighting as a single unit. In these moments of connected “we” the brothers are revealed, “We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped out spoons against our empty bowels; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots.” At times this unity can make it difficult to distinguish each individual personality. However, the narrative does break into first person singular at seemingly random intervals throughout the novel and then entirely takes over the closing chapter. “I pressed my hand against the glass, suddenly embarrassed, needing the cold. That’s how it sometimes was with Ma; I needed to press myself against something cold and hard, or I’d get dizzy.” The reader now sees this character’s differences, the things that make him who he is. Though usually running wild with his brothers, the narrator is an intelligent, curious, and sensitive little boy.

The book is comprised of brief chapters progressing through a roughly chronological telling of the brother’s younger years. There’s a jagged edge to these chapters that are reminiscent of memory–fragmented, only focused on the brightest moment, the most painful instant captured for all to see while the mundane fades to bare awakening. These moments paint a disjointed image of personal growth, emotional development, and a new sexual understanding.

As the end fast approaches, and the narrative POV changes to first person singular, a sharp line is drawn between who the narrator was and who the narrator wishes to be. The diction and sentence structure play against each other, one simple while the other is complex, giving the last line a final knockout punch. “Everything easy between me and my brothers and my mother and my father was lost.”

We the Animals is an imperfect debut novel that grips the edges of your soul and refuses to let go, leaving a haunting final impression that is certainly worth the read.

Book Review: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore

Review by Chelsea Archer

who will run the frog hospital

Lorrie Moore

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

1994

Vintage

978-1-4000-3382-9

“In Paris we eat brains every night. My husband likes the vaporous, fishy mousse of them. They are a kind of seafood he thinks, locked tightly in the skull, like shelled creatures in the dark caves of the ocean, sprung suddenly free and killed by the light; they’ve grown clammy with shelter, fortressed vulnerability, dreamy nights. Me, I’m eating for a flashback.”

The first paragraph of Laurie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital opens a novel telling of wild youth, unseized potential, and adult disappointment. Known for her short story collections, Moore’s second full length novel brings together elements of short fiction as the narrative tracks protagonist, Berie, through recollections of her childhood in upstate New York and recognizes the unfulfilled status of her marriage and adult life.

The story begins in first person present where it introduces Berie and her husband Daniel in Paris. We are given an immediate impression of discontent before being whooshed back to her childhood. The story subsequently pops back and forth between the past and present for the remainder of the novel. In these spaces between time we gain insight into who Berie truly is and who she once was.

In a present conversation with her husband, Berie lies about her past, a lie that brings us, the reader, into her confidence. “‘You’re no hoodlum.’ ‘That’s true,’ I say sighing. And in this lie I feel close to him, so grateful to him, so full of pity. It goes like that. Our talk goes something like that” (48). While the majority of the novel takes place in Berie’s past, it acts like a framing point, a way for us to understand who this woman is and how she became this way. Without these flashbacks the shadow of a woman that Berie has become would hold no emotion or interest due to lack of context.

As we bounce back and follow Berie around a small town called Horsehearts, we witness life in the 1970’s. Here, teenagers smoked weed, listened to records, and drank booze–the horror of Vietnam far from their minds. Berie and her best friend Sils (the beautiful one) sneak out at night, use fake ID’s, and allow strange men to drive them home, yet their reputations remain intact, the mask of sensible girls pulled firmly into place.

Now, it can happen that flashbacks can become tiresome, can begin to feel unimportant, but Moore does a smart thing–for every 20 or 30 pages of flashback, she inserts a short burst of flash forward. “When, three years later, LaRoue hung herself in the county hospital psychiatric ward, the nurses arriving too late to cut her down, I would remember this exuberance, the hollow nervousness and yet the genuine sororal note, rattling around there, trying to get out” (140). These moments serve to make the past feel more immediate, to give it a solid footing in the present moment. We now understand the stakes in that the moment that the protagonist doesn’t.

It’s these elements that make Who Will Run the Frog Hospital such a poignant and entertaining novel. At the close of the story we realize what the narrative tells us–the past makes us who we are in the present and forces us to remember the ideals that were once of such import. Simply because time has passed and things have changed does not mean that the same things we cherished as children no longer touch our hearts.

Book Review: Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed

Little Known Facts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christine Sneed

Little Known Facts

February 2013

Bloomsbury USA

ISBN: 978-1608199679

 

Christine Sneed’s debut novel, Little Known Facts, is a heartwarming and genuinely thoughtful look at the glitz and glamor in today’s star obsessed, reality television watching material world. Sneed successfully humanizes Renn Ivins and his complicated family, highlighting their flaws and sufferings in a circumspect and close-to-home manner. Sneed’s lens offers the reader a candid and, at times, humbling view of what it takes to find your way in life – no matter who your daddy is. It is as if Sneed possesses a powerful fluorescent light that out-shines the stardom of Hollywood, allowing the reader to see beyond the spotlight of fame to discover the everyday worries and disappointments of these seemingly advantaged families. Renn’s slew of ex-wives  and lovers and late life insecurities remind us that they have as many, if not more issues than the “normal” or “average” American family. Addressing aging, self-acceptance and love, Sneed proves that with the right insight and understanding we can all find our place in life—whether it was where we thought we would be or where we never thought we would ever be. Her insight is astounding and her delivery is flawless.

Sneed stands strong as a fiction contender. She is a refreshing alternative to the ghostwritten tell-alls and celebrity biographies that assault our senses from every angle—in  book and grocery stores nationwide and I am sure the public would agree that the truthfulness of this story rivals those. Her story is light in a way that it even has the tendency to poke fun at itself—there is a novel about a famous family within the novel about a famous family. Melanie (ex-wife #2) publishes a memoir titled This is Not Gold, and reflects on whether or not some of her decisions were for the reasons she had thought.

In chapter eight, titled “A Good Person,” Sneed bestows the opportunity upon the reader to examine Renn under a microscope. The reader learns that he keeps detailed and rigorous journals of his life and feelings. These journals start at the first of every year and are promptly burned at the end. In this chapter, Sneed reveals the desperation that so many have to “tell their story.” How misinterpreted one’s life can become. Renn keeps two journals: one to be published postmortem and a second that is personal. He defends his keeping of a journal, revealing that it “…is where I write down things that I have done or thoughts I have had that sometimes make it hard to sleep at night…Despite the risks, I need to keep this second journal because it’s like a pressure valve—if it weren’t there, my life would blow up” (173). Most people with jobs, families and stress can relate to needing a similar sort of release.

With this novel Sneed reminds her readers that at the heart of things we are all the same. We struggle, we fight, we suffer and we do terribly embarrassing things—no matter our age or stature. We wish that we could control how people view us—and though we may not have a post mortem memoir that is worthy of publication, we do have pride and a sense of self-preservation that is inherent in almost everyone. There is a humanizing detail to every persona and perhaps if one were to take the time to step back and look, we would all discover that money, fame, popularity, and success are all just things and with those things come grief, sadness, disappointment and self-realization.

 

 

Crystal Miller lives in Tampa, FL with her family where she teaches writing at Hillsborough Community College. She is a voracious reader and before entering Sierra Nevada’s MFA program, she earned her Bachelor of Arts at SUNY Empire State College with a dual major in Literature and Creative Writing. Crystal is currently working on her first novel, which will be the first in a series regarding female serial killers.

 

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Book Review: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace

2008

Penguin Books

ISBN: 978-0143115281

 

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a well-crafted novel that will leave any reader feeling fortunate that he is not David Laurie. Laurie, a seemingly successful professor in Africa’s Cape Town, loses almost everything through a series of questionable decisions that are then followed by a series of unfortunate events. When his life goes awry, he flees to the African countryside and his daughter, Lucy, only to find that his life’s difficulties continue to amass amidst the turmoil of South Africa. In a place where life should be simpler, easier, Laurie discovers true pain and agony—the sort that can only come from someone harming those you love and the realization that you are useless in the matter. He discovers that the danger that lurks around every corner is not exclusive to the city—perhaps even worse in the countryside where areas tend to have their own practices and hierarchies.

Coetzee seems to be reiterating the theme of a man’s “goodness” and mortality as he did in his earlier novel, Slow Man, and again in his later novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. Both of his earlier novels present the reader with a main character who has suffered greatly and personally (though the placement of the injury varies a bit between the two). Laurie has a less-than-passionate, and at brief moments confusing, affair with his student Tiffany and much like the one that occurs between the magistrate and barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians, it leads him to experience a series of struggles. Laurie’s struggles begin with the loss of his career and continue to escalate after he retreats to his daughter’s smallholding in the country.

Coetzee uses a chronological structure (with a sprinkling of flashbacks) in Disgrace to heighten the tension of the plot. Laurie’s series of unfortunate circumstances comprise the girth of the novel, leaving the reader feeling as if he is barely able to tread water. There are two very significant robbery scenes in this novel that act almost as a structural framework for the story. When Lucy and Laurie experience the first robbery scene, in chapter eleven, it is a harsh blow; however, when Laurie returns to his home in chapter twenty and finds it too has been burglarized the reader cannot help but feel as if his heads are being pressed below the surface. The second robbery scene unfolds like this: “[it is]…no ordinary burglary. A raiding party moving in, cleaning out the site, retreating laden with bags, boxes, suitcases…who at this moment is wearing his shoes?…from the bathroom…a bad smell…a pigeon…expired in the basin…the lights are cut off, the telephone is dead” (176). This scene, however powerful it may be on its own, is next to devastating in its context. It also reveals the depths of sorrow that Laurie needs to reach to spur him to change—to make a commitment to something that is otherwise uncomfortable.

Coetzee excels at the development of characters with flaws and insecurities; he has proved his talent for characterization novel and novel again. It seems he has also found a niche in the troubled middle-aged man who has lost his passion and is only spurred into reality after an affair with a younger woman goes terribly wrong. Perhaps Coetzee is using such stories to warn his peers of careless decisions—or perhaps he is revealing a little something of himself and his views through a new and hopelessly defective character. Whatever Coetzee’s intentions are, his result is a deeply revelatory and moving experience for his reader, one that resonates in such an unsettling way that it is not likely to leave them for quite a while.

 

 

Crystal Miller lives in Tampa, FL with her family where she teaches writing at Hillsborough Community College. She is a voracious reader and before entering Sierra Nevada’s MFA program, she earned her Bachelor of Arts at SUNY Empire State College with a dual major in Literature and Creative Writing. Crystal is currently working on her first novel, which will be the first in a series regarding female serial killers.

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