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Reading: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Celebrated first day of summer: reading by the pool. c Elissa Field, 2014

Celebrated first day of summer: reading by the pool. c Elissa Field, 2014

I’ve been very picky in reading this past spring — literally put down 7 out of 12 books, without finishing. But today I’m motivated to post the first book review I’ve shared on this site, because so bowled over by Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, Jan. 2013).

And the Winner Is…

I first picked this novel up when it began appearing on lists nominating it for various national and international book awards last year. Constellation won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award and the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction.  It was also nominated for the National Book Award in Fiction, and appeared on numerous best-reads lists, including the Goodreads Choice list.

anthony marraI was particularly intrigued because I “knew” Anthony from when he participated in a writer’s forum back when he was applying for a Stanford Stegner fellowship, years back. Constellation is Marra’s first novel. I shared this interest here before, when I included link to an interview with Marra by the New School in Friday Links for Writers: 02.21.14.

From this, what I knew of the book in advance was that it was intelligent and stark, with some risks taken in multiple narrative threads.

Stunning and Beautiful

What I found was an intelligent, sometimes poetic, emotionally powerful insight into individual lives of civilians during the wars in Chechnya. The simplest compliment I could give the novel was the point, midway through, when I found myself comparing the narrative impact of the writing to Tolstoy.

Marra’s writing is beautiful, brave, clean and with an unhurried confidence that left a nuanced and authentic portrayal of characters who were altogether new. As the novel opens, a young Chechen girl, Havaa, is watching her house burn, knowing her father has been disappeared. She is quickly spirited away by Akhmed, a close friend of her father’s, who takes on a job (as the worst physician in Chechnya) in Hospital No. 6 in order to convince the head doctor to hide the girl. As three more key characters are introduced, Marra weaves together histories and desires that reveal the personal losses and motivations that populate the lives of civilians in wartime.

Fascinated by Marra’s Narrative Structure

There is an idiosynchratic spirit to Constellations.  I’d heard it described as multiple stories woven together, but what he accomplishes is much more organic and unified than that.

Divisions of the novel are based on time. There are 28 chapters to the novel, grouped into parts that measure the five days after Dokka is disappeared. At the top of each chapter is a timeline band, highlighting the relevant years for that chapter. While the storyline progresses through the events after Dokka is taken, each chapter moves organically through the minds of the main characters and how the past 20 years of memories led each of the characters to the events of these 5 days. The complexity of the structure is pulled off beautifully.

Some risks are taken in the ways that Marra plays with voice, as the narrative fluctuates in varying degrees of 3rd person. The most basic structure is that each chapter begins with close 3rd on one of 5 main characters; line spacing mid-chapter usually then signals a shift to close 3rd from another main character’s pov. Frequently, however — particularly in traumatic encounters with other players in the war, such as arrival in the ER of a man whose leg was blasted apart by a landmine — narrative voice shifts to omniscience for 1-3 lines, revealing inner secrets, thoughts or future outcomes of this side character before returning to the main character’s pov.  The effect of this intrigues me, as it breaks a linear plane to create a wavery effect that is less godly than a shared-awareness that seems fitting in an environment where all predictable rules have dissolved.  What is impressive is Marra’s control, as pov shifts are accomplished without apology or need for awkward segues.  By visiting Havaa’s pov in the opening line, then Akhmed’s within the next line, Marra has effectively signaled that views will shift.

Lasting Impact

The concept of the novel is powerful. I was continually impressed at Marra’s ability to deliver with nuanced subtlety how each individual progresses through the insane or horrifying events of war (or warlike conditions and even torture in supposed peacetime). He manages to present the factual history in a manner that is seamless with the characters’ individual voices and storylines.

What is most powerful are the characters. While it is a novel revealing truisms of war, it is ultimately a novel about love and compassion and the warmly developed lives of characters in this small village. Each character is vivid, intriguing and their stories compelling.

Congrats to Anthony Marra for making my Top Reads of 2014.

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What Are You Reading?

I’m getting ready to post my Summer Reading List for 2014, which has me curious what everyone else is reading.  I’d love to hear your own reading suggestions in the comments.  Let us know the favorite books you’ve read this year or ones on your must-reads list.  If this inspires you to blog your own list, share link to your post so we can come read with you.

Where do the book links take you?

For convenience, you can click the book link to Marra’s book in the opening paragraph, which takes you to Amazon.  Or, you can find it at your favorite indie bookseller through indiebound.org:

Shop Indie Bookstores

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Next on My Reading List: Fall 2012

Here is a selection from my “active reading” stacks, bridging my reading from summer into fall 2012. (The porcelain boxer has run through three generations in our family – as has the breed.) c Elissa Field

My Summer Reading List was one of the most-read articles I’ve posted this year, and I really enjoyed the great conversation it drew here, on Twitter and on Facebook.  One of the more charming qualities avid readers share in common is the unrestrained love of a great new story. Ungainly as colts learning to manage our legs, we go to bookstores in search of one book but walk with a guilty armload of the half-dozen we hadn’t expected but can’t wait to read.  We’re reading one book, but have six more stacked on our bedside table or waiting in our virtual shopping baskets.

Which is segue to say that soon after posting my summer reading, I’d already begun drafting “Next on my Reading List,” which I’m excited to share below.  Several of the books come from readers’ comments, as you shared your own favorites and to-reads, or blogged your own lists.  A couple were books I’ve wanted to read but either slip my mind or I haven’t yet found them in store.  Others have grabbed my attention over the summer from reviews, nominees for awards, and news of new releases.  There are some fabulous books releasing this fall.

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  1. Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (Sept. 2012). Let’s put it this way: after reading the New York Times review, I tweeted, “If the book is half as good as the review, it will be a top read for fall.” London editor Drummond Moir tweeted back, “It’s twice that good.” It doesn’t hurt that the topic fits my current writing bent, so this debut is high on my list. Update: Yellow Birds makes my best read(s) of the year list. I bought it on Friday and didn’t put it down. Days after, I was still shaken by the subtle, powerful impact he conveys — I’ve never read such an honest account of war, so poetically expressed. Highly, highly recommend this one.
  2. Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow (2011). I have never heard a negative thing about Tayari Jones, and everything I’ve read of her, from reviews of her books to reading her on Twitter, has been fabulous. Silver Sparrow is her much-applauded book published May 2011, but I’ve also heard great things about her 2003 novel, Leaving AtlantaUpdate: Finally (yay!) I picked up Tayari’s book, and it’s next in line. I can’t wait.
  3. Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Feb. 2012). Frankly, Nathan Englander can do no wrong, in my book.  He is on the short list of authors I’d like to workshop with, which says a lot.  His 2008 novel The Ministry of Special Cases made my favorite reads of 2011, as intelligent, poetic and haunting. What We Talk About is a collection of short stories; his 2000 novel For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is also on my to-read list.
  4. Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox (2011).  I’ve read short stories by this writer, and suspect this first novel deserved more acclaim. I’m curious to check it out, now that paperback and Kindle have made it easier to get ahold of — I had a hard time finding it before.
  5. David Abrams, Fobbit (Sept. 2012). I discovered Abrams on Twitter, so have anticipated Fobbit’s September release.  A 20 year veteran as a journalist in the Army, Abrams shares his behind-the-scenes insight to life on an FOB during the war in Iraq.
  6. Matthew Dicks, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend (Aug. 2012). For several months when I was seven, I had an imaginary pet dog who I felt no hesitation in talking about (or walking on a leash). It’s the sort of thing you forget as adult, and there is something powerful in hearing someone else share a similar experience — like having the guy beside you say he saw the same ghost. Beyond that personal appeal, I’ve read excerpts and am excited to track this book down — it is an interesting first novel, with a whole new perspective.
  7. Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (Jun. 2012).  Addition of Gone Girl to my reading list is Twitter-provoked — which reflects either a really effective social marketing campaign, or this book really does keep readers up all night turning pages.  This thriller is Flynn’s third novel. Update: this made my “favorite reads of 2012” list — a great thriller.
  8. Sarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit (Apr. 2012).  Searched, but I can’t for the life of me find the original list I discovered this one on — I thought it was long list for an award? — but something in reviews makes it compelling. This is Winman’s first novel.

Writers I’ve Been Meaning to Read:

It’s unfair that readers so readily buy work by famous authors — and just as unfair that we sometimes bypass the famed writers, numb to their accomplishment in favor of discovering someone new. Here are a few I’ve been meaning to read.

  1. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2006).  I look forward to this one as Ishiguro impressed me immensely with his ability to portray passion in restraint in The Remains of the Day.
  2. Joyce Carol Oates, Black Dahlia & White Rose  (Sept. 2012). It’s true I neglect many famed writers until something like this interview in Salon brings them to my attention, made more human than celebrity, and the idea of reading their work feels as fresh as discovering that new writer. (Thanks to link on my cousin Katie’s facebook for this one — and good luck to her in her Fullbright teaching post in Rwanda this fall!)
  3. Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton (Sept. 2012). This one comes from Flavorwire’s “10 New Must Reads for September.” I admire Rushdie and have been weighing which of his to read. Anton may, in the end, lose out to one of his earlier works.
  4. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000; 2001 Pulitzter Prize winner). Whether this one or, Wonder Boys, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh or another, I’ve been meaning to read Chabon.
  5. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925). I’ve read other works by Woolf (I’m a fan of To the Lighthouse) and have read and viewed so many adaptations, but don’t know that I’ve ever read the original of Mrs. Dalloway.
  6. Ann Patchett, State of Wonder (May 2012).  I began reading this over the summer after countless recommendations from friends. Update: this one has not yet held my attention, but that’s part of the fickleness of reading — books compete not only with other works, but with the writing going on in our own heads. I’m putting it aside for my next reading list.

Irish Writers:

Sometimes my reading list becomes topic- or author-specific, based on what I am writing.  Writing Wake, I’ve been seeking out current fiction by Irish authors, and these rose on my list.

  1. Jon Banville, The Sea (2005; Man Booker Prize). I’m reading this one now and can’t read a line without being distracted back to my own writing, so the reading is going slowly. I picked Banville, though, for portrayal of a tranquil seaside town, countering the crime noir and conflict-based writing I’d been saturated in.
  2. Anne Enright, The Gathering (2007).  Winner of the Man Booker Prize (2008?), Enright’s voice has been praised as bridging the lyrical traditions of Irish story telling with new sense of surprise. Update: When I began reading, I was impressed with the confident, unhurried and subtle way Enright conveys emotions… But I put it down at page 62. It may be a matter of taste, but I was turned off by the grunge-level of drinking and sexuality, without feeling compelled to like any characters.
  3. Colm Tóibín, Mothers and Sons (2008). This story collection snuck its way in line, taking the place of one of the books off my Summer Reading list.  His prose is clean and smart; he’s best know for the precision of his characters — not so much for story resolution. His novel Brooklyn (2009) also makes my list, as does his essay collection, out this year, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. Update: I loved Mothers & Sons, and look forward to reading not Brooklyn but The Master next.

Rolled over from Summer’s list, just releasing this fall:

  1. Adrian McKinty, The Cold Cold Ground (2012).
  2. Emma Straub Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (2012).


  1. Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (2008) and The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (2007). Baxter wasn’t my workshop leader when I went to Bread Loaf Writers Conference, yet I came away from that intense week more impacted by the advice in Baxter’s afternoon lectures than the whole week of my workshop.  I had been meaning to read Burning Down the House, but recently heard great feedback also on The Art of Subtext, so both go on my list.  Want one more? Bringing the Devil to his Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life (2001).
  2. Pankaj Ghemawat, Redefining Global Strategy: Crossing Borders in a World Where Differences Still Matter (2007).  I stumbled on this while trying to find lost link to a book about Ireland’s border counties… and it may just make my Kindle list.

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And What Are You Reading?

As with the Summer Reading List, I’d love to hear your own reading suggestion in the comments.  Let us know the favorite books you’ve read this year, or ones on your must-reads list.  If this inspires you to blog your own list, share a link.

Do I Really Read All These Books?

Over the summer, I read a third of the books on the list I posted. Of those I didn’t read: 3 books I started and set aside — not that they were bad, but others took over.  Several I could not get ahold of (2 had not yet released, so are posted as “rollovers” above).  I ran out of time for the rest as I’m also reading news, articles, student work, blogs, submissions and more, each day.  Realistically, I know I’ll read at least a third of the fall list (1 down, already), and the ones I don’t get to are still the books I would mention to a friend, if they were wondering what good books were out there. Update: I read 8 of the 21 listed here, as well as another handful not listed. Of those I didn’t read, several rotated to my Winter Reading list as I had not yet gotten ahold of them by the end of year.

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Happy fall reading, all!

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Where do the book links take you?  For convenience, you can click book titles for their link at Amazon — or find them at your favorite indie bookseller through indiebound.org:

Shop Indie Bookstores


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