Obama: I’s Gettin’ to It

What have I been reading? Ok, honestly my goal is to finish Obama’s book by Sunday. It sits on the floor by my bed and continues to haunt me. I step over and around it and have managed to pick up every other book but that one. I have read a couple of short stories in Breaking Ice, Gumbo, and Lost in the City, but no Obama. Again, my goal is to have the book finished by Sunday. Sunday I say.

I will note that I am impressed with the short stories that I’ve read in Edward P. Jones’ book. They’ve really made me question whether he’s a better short story writer than novelist. Is that possible? My boyfriend picked up The Known World and read a few pages the other night. I just marched around with my mumbles, grumbles, and facial contortions while he called himself reading and making commentary about how its obvious why I wouldn’t like it. I was hoping that he would keep reading and actually finish it, but it might be for the best since I’d have to cut him if he tried to disagree with my half-developed opinions of the book.

Speaking of short stories, as you know I recently purchased Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. If you didn’t know…scroll on down to find out more. While fighting the urge to go to sleep last night (which included reading The Artist’s Way and Plot and Structure which we’ll discuss in a minute) I decided to click on some of the book links on my own navigation bar (to the right, to the right). This is all normal for me. Well, I came across an article and excerpt on NPR which discusses my new purchase. So here are the more interesting tid bits from the article “Writer Finds a Fated Friend in Jesus’ Son” by Nathan Englander:

If you’re only going to read one book this year about getting stabbed in the eye and crushing tiny, helpless bunnies, then I’d run right out and get Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son…

There are so few books that I go back to again and again, and fewer still that were written in the last 20 years. But I can never get enough of Jesus’ Son. It’s a small volume of 11 short stories. And it is brutally honest and painfully beautiful. It’s set in a down-and-out world of drugs and drink. But wait — don’t turn that dial — Mr. Johnson succeeds at this where so many others fail. He doesn’t ever romanticize these dark settings while leaving his narrator open to the fact that, despite it all, we may live in a heartbreakingly romantic world…

I was living in Iowa City at the time, and this book, for my friends and me, became sort of a young writers’ bible. This is the kind of thing that could be done. With dialogue that feels like you’re getting it verbatim and stripped-down prose, he writes simple, honest stories that have the bigness of great work…

Read the full article and Johnson’s story excerpt.

A friend at VONA was reading Johnson’s book and asked me if I wanted to borrow it for a minute. I exchanged my Plot and Structure book (that I still hadn’t cracked open) and went back to my room to see what this Jesus’ Son was all about. Before I began reading I couldn’t help but question whether the author was black. After all, a black person gave me the book, right? Such a shame, but I always wonder when a really good black book falls into my hands how I missed out on it for so long.

Upon glancing at the story titles, I decided to read “Out on Bail.” I was quite impressed by how Johnson dove into the story and came right back up for a clean finish. I mean, if nothing else, it was the ending that made me put the book down for a minute and stare at a wall…like damn…now that was a story. Here’s an excerpt which I selected and typed up for your reading pleasure:

That night I sat in a booth across from Kid Williams, a former boxer. His black hands were lumpy and mutilated. I always had the feeling he might suddenly reach out his hands and strangle me to death. He spoke in two voices. He was in his fifties. He’d wasted his entire life. Such people were very dear to those of us who’d wasted only a few years. With Kid Williams sitting across from you it was nothing to contemplate going on like this for another month or two.

I was exaggerating about those hospital name bands. Kid Williams was wearing one of his wrist. He’d just come over the wall from Detox. “Buy me a drink, buy me a drink,” he said in his high pitch voice. Then he frowned and said in his low voice, “I come down here for just a short time,” and brightening, in his high voice: “I wanted to see you-all! Buy me one now, because I don’t have my purse, my wallet, they took all my money. They thiefs.” He grabbed at the barmaid like a child after a toy. All he was wearing was a nightshirt tucked into his pants and hospital slippers made of green paper.

Now, check this out, that small excerpt wasn’t even what the story was really about. That was just one of the many passages that stood out for me in that particular piece. I actually wanted to post the ending, but I refused to consider spoiling it for you. Jesus’ Son ya’ll. The book was published in 1993, so I realize that I’m late, but at least I now have one more bullet for my literary arsenal. “Your story reminds me of [blah, blah, blah] by Denis Johnson…” Ha.

One thing that I recognized in a few stories at VONA’s novel workshop and in Edward P. Jones’ book Lost in the City was something that my book Plot and Structure drove home for me last night. The key to a good story/novel is beginning strong. Lately, my eyes have been more aware and attuned to this. While the author of Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell, won’t get off Dean Koontz’ balls, I’d like to discuss this writing strategy by pointing out a few openings from Jones’ short story collection.

But first, Bell notes that, “the beginning portion of the novel, has several tasks to perform: get the reader hooked; establish a bond between the reader and the Lead character; present the story world-tell us something about the setting, the time and the immediate context; establish the general tone of the novel; compel the reader to move to the middle; introduce the opposition.” Let’s see how and if Jones’ applies these noted tasks for his short story openings. Unfortunately, I will only provide the first sentence.

“The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” – Her father would say years later that she had dreamed that part of it, that she had never gone out through the kitchen window at two or three in the morning to visit the birds.

“The First Day” – On an otherwise unremarkable September morning, long before I learned to be ashamed of my mother, she takes my hand and we set off down New Jersey Avenue to begin my very first day of school.

“Young Lions” – He stood naked before the open refrigerator in the darkened kitchen, downing the last of the milk in a half-gallon carton. Carol, once again, had taped a note to the carton.

“The Store” – I’d been out of work three four months when I saw her ad in the Daily News; a few lines of nothing special, almost as if she really didn’t want a response.

“An Orange Line Train to Ballston” – The first time Marvella “Velle” Watkins saw the man with the dreadlocks, rain threatened and she just managed to get herself and her three children down into the subway before it began.

“The Sunday Following Mother’s Day” – When Madeleine Williams was four years old and her brother Sam was ten, their father killed their mother one night in early April.

Yes, I actually went through and read every opening sentence in the book. Does Jones’ accomplish that instant grab for the readers attention? Definitely. You can read more for yourself on Google Book Search. That’s right, you can actually read the first couple of pages of a few of the mentioned stories. Isn’t that cool? Stronger opening lines will definitely be a skill that I begin working toward from this point on.

Okay, now I refuse to post again until I can officially say I’ve completed Obama’s book. I’m tired of playing around about it. Don’t doubt me on this. Now pardon me while I run to the mailbox to see what exciting book shipments await me there.

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3 thoughts on “Obama: I’s Gettin’ to It

  1. Trenee I really love this website gurl. It is very unique and I love that you are a black woman giving your opinion about a variety of books. This site is amazing. I look foward to seeing more excerpts and book recommendations. Good luck with Barack Obama’s book. I thought it was just ok. I will return to read more. Keep doing your thang!!!

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  2. Oh and I looked up the author of your Plot & Structure book. You should know that James Scott Bell has published several books that have a five star rating on Amazon. You may want to take a look for yourself. He must know what he’s talking about. Good luck with your writing. I would love to read something that you’re working on. You should consider posting it on the site.

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