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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

If a picture is worth a thousand words...

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an example is worth... I'm not sure, but a lot. In any case, here are a few of the books I frequently recommend as particularly good examples of one literary challenge or another.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. Building tension. Chaon is a master at ratcheting up the tension with practically every scene in the book, and at weaving together the strands of this unnerving story.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. Spare prose creating an emotional response in the reader. I use this compact novel to illustrate how a first-person narrator can evoke great emotion in a reader (namely me) without being the slightest bit emotional himself. The writing is tightly controlled; the voice is pitch perfect.

Hiding Places by Daniel Asa Rose. Pinpointing the organizing principle of a memoir. One of the daunting challenges faced by this author was figuring out a way to thematically link the facts of his own Connecticut childhood with the larger story of his family's escape from the Holocaust. He succeeds brilliantly in finding a framework through which we can see the connections.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Second-person narration. Hamid fully succeeds at the difficult task of writing an entire novel in the second person without being annoying. The plot strays just a bit at one point, but I'm so impressed with the second-person narration that I don't care.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. Ambitious scope of story. Wroblewski is not afraid to tackle big themes in his beautifully written novel, and the world he creates is large and deep and rich enough to support his undertaking.

Of course there are plenty of great books that could be added to this list under these and other categories, but I'll stop there for now.


  1. Another book I would add to "Ambitious scope of story" is Octavia Butler's Kindred. This is probably my least favorite of her books (I've read them all) but what I truly love about the story is how ambitious it is. Although sometimes a writer’s vision doesn't quite pan out the way he or she would have liked, I still give props for having the guts to tackle some of those big themes without holding back.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Irene. Can't wait to read it. I'm with you. I respect writers willing to tackle some of those big themes, and even if they aren't completely successful, there's usually a lot to commend their effort.

    Another "Ambitious Scope of Story" book I love -- and which in my opinion is completely successful: Atonement, by Ian McEwan.

  3. I will have to check that one out. I have yet to read any Ian McEwan books and that seems like a good one to start with. I'm very interested in The Reluctant Fundamentalist--I haven't really seen the second person POV in a novel since Bright Lights Big City. I think it's a really interesting way to tell a story, but extremely difficult to pull off as you say.

    Something else I thought of as far as literary techniques go is the double climax. I was about a hundred pages from the end of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and it seemed that all the major plot points had been resolved. I was disappointed, thinking I would be reading a hundred pages of boring epilogue type prose, but somehow he managed to pull of a second climax that was just as compelling as the first. I was very impressed.