Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Summer Reading: Bonnie Jo Campbell & Moby Dick

Last night I finished American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s collection of stories, and it was amazing. One of the few collections that I read in entirety, in order, and in spite of myself: I’d only planned to read one or two stories now just to get the flavor. Set in working class Michigan, these stories are about people skulking along the fringes of society—which doesn’t diminish their stories or make their lives less worthy of exploration. Meth addicts (and the people who love them), survivalists, salvage yard workers, silent children, the PhD in agriculture who knows she can improve her husband’s family farm…all are treated with compassion and humanity and dark, emotional honesty.

Here’s the opening paragraph of “Bringing Belle Home”:

“A man who trusted himself to own a gun could walk into the place and shoot these guys, one after another, watch the glass fly: Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Yukon Jack, Johnny Walker Red. The bartender pocketed a dollar-fifty tip and smiled. Thomssen grinned and saluted, but he felt the grin pull tight across his face like a scar, and he might have been saluting the liquor army. He could resist coming here most days of the week, and he rarely came when his son was visiting, but on nights like tonight when he dropped Billy off at his ex-wife’s, when he couldn’t face his own empty house, he allowed himself a few hours. He was tall enough to see everyone in the place, and he told himself he was glad Belle wasn’t there to complicate things.”

Here’s an excerpt from a starred review in Booklist:
“Campbell’s busted-broke, damaged, and discarded people are rich in longing, valor, forgiveness and love, and readers themselves will feel salvaged and transformed by the gutsy book’s fierce compassion.”

As you may recall, this was the small press book (originally published by Wayne State University Press) that was seemingly plucked from nowhere and announced as a finalist for the National Book Award in 2009. I had to look up which book actually won the award—(Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin, which is I guess a fine book—but I can imagine that in the stacks of books under consideration that the overwhelmed judges were trying to hone down to five, American Salvage had to be un-ignorable and unforgettable; surely this one leapt to the top of the pile and absolutely could not be dislodged.

This one is going straight to my “favorite books shelf.” Buy this book!

Scroll down to the May 3 entry of this blog for an amusing (and helpful) list of writing advice Bonnie Jo Campbell has given writing students over the years.


And now that I’ve finished American Salvage, I’m free to embark upon my big summer reading goal: Moby Dick. I’m on page 52—only 450 more to go!—and so far I’m loving it.

I’ve even laughed out loud a few times, which I wouldn’t have expected—though it’s hard not to when we’re told of the “savage” Queequeg: “His greatest admirer could not have cordially justified his bringing his harpoon into breakfast [at the inn] with him, and using it there without ceremony, reaching over the table with it, to the imminent jeopardy of many heads, and grappling the beefsteaks towards him. But that was certainly very coolly done by him, and everyone knows that in most people’s estimation, to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly.”

Disclosure per the FTC overlords: American Salvage was a birthday gift, and I bought Moby Dick at a used bookstore, confident I wasn't cheating Herman Melville's family out of any royalties.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.