Student Picks: Vittorini, Foer, Follett

Arrun Chittur-- I was drawn to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am by the speculative story line -  the novel’s catalyst is an earthquake that leads to existential conflict in Israel. Foer uses meandering paragraphs in which the narrator reflects on the main character’s (Jacob) behalf, focusing the reader not on the natural disaster and ensuing conflict, but on the ‘real’ story.

Jacob and Julia Bloch, married 15 years, have three sons and a house in suburbia. Jacob descends from a line of proud Jewish patriarchs who passively remind the family of their history. And their unfulfilled obligation. As Jacob and Julia’s marriage unravels, the children are forced into young adulthood and Jacob becomes more timid and cautious, which only exacerbates his distance from Julia. Israel suffers from catastrophic loss, as the family does in the death of Jacob’s grandfather. Yet Jacob seems content to live in the shadow of a more interesting life he’s too afraid to live.  

Then as if on cue, you enter the second half of the book and see pieces of yourself in Jacob. You ask yourself about opportunities lost, what you ‘could’ be doing. You remember the lesson, that it’s never too late. Until it is. 

Kirah Brouillette-- People often escape trauma through art, stories and music. For me it’s sometimes opera – the perfect culmination of them all. The lyrical and visual beauty of it soothes me. When I picked up Elio Vittorini’s novel Conversations In Sicily, written in 1937, I didn’t expect to find the opera. Yet I did.

Set in Mussolini-era Italy, it’s the story of Silvestro, a man gone numb from the spread of fascism, war and death. He journeys home to his mother, meeting characters along the way who reveal huge themes through careful dialogue: fascist rule, economic inequality, broken familial bonds. From its format in sections reminiscent of movements, to the tactile descriptions of Sicily that mimic the visual glory of opera, to the wonderful use of sound and repetition to create a musical cadence to each paragraph, this novel is a masterpiece of operatic imitation, political commentary and lyrical prose. Vittorini – himself a fan of opera – claimed to have used the operatic overtones purposely, so it would pass the fascist censors of his time.

In a world that feels as though we, too, are inundated with death and war (ideological and actual), Conversations In Sicily is the soothing we all need.

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Margaret McNellis-- Pillars of the Earth was my first exposure to Ken Follett, and I was transfixed. Not only does this epic novel present multiple point-of-view characters without bogging down the prose or losing the reader, but it touches on issues that continue to challenge people today, even though it takes place in the twelfth century. Follett weaves in ten years of research into Romantic and Gothic architecture throughout England, modeling his fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral on the Salisbury Cathedral.

The story covers several main characters, some from childhood into middle age, and some into their elder years. Follett juxtaposes the struggles of the poor and the rich, weaving them together to show how society relies on people from all walks of life.

Pillars is what inspired me to write historical fiction, and I often look to Follett for how to incorporate historical facts and cultures into my work. It’s the first in the Kingsbridge Trilogy, followed by World Without End and Column of Fire; the latter was released in September 2017. Column, which takes place in Renaissance England, is next on my list of non-MFA books to read, and I’m chomping at the bit to dig into it.