Student Picks: Wuxia, Murray, Tartt


C. A. Cooke-- The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants is one of China’s oldest and greatest masterpieces of literature, and one of the founding works of thewuxia (WOO-shee-A) genre. Wuxia translates to “martial hero” and is applied to the genre of literature and cinema concerning the adventures of wandering martial artists in ancient China. A typical wuxia story follows honorable martial heroes through their dealings with bandits, evil warlords, and even demons.

A perfect example of how this story formed this genre can be found within the section “Sleek Rat Helps an Old Man.” A young warrior known as Sleek Rat discovers a landlord has kidnapped his tenant’s daughter to ransom more money from him. Sleek Rat pays the ransom, then waits; under the cover of darkness, Sleek Rat rescues the daughter and punishes the landlord. Thus, he has proven both his gallantry and his skill.

Throughout the centuries, wuxia became popular and crept into cinema. The current Ip Man films about a Kung Fu master righting wrongs through the Japanese and British occupations of Hong Kong owe their beginnings to novels like The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants. The novel, and the genre, have both withstood the test of time.


Margaret McNellis-- Breaking Night by Liz Murray is a memoir about forgiveness and finding one’s own drive and personal power. It’s a story of homelessness and isolation, of family, friendship, and hardship. I recently had to read this book for work, and it was one of the most heart-wrenching, beautiful memoirs I’ve ever had the pleasure (and at times, displeasure) to read. The writing is clear and captivating, and Murray’s voice jumps off the page to surround the reader in stereo from the start of the prologue.

The obstacles that Murray had to overcome—even as a young child—seem insurmountable, yet she inspires with her determination and love for her family, particularly her mother. Her relationship with her mother, and with herself, are central, though Murray expertly demonstrates how those two relationships define all the others in her formative and teenage years.

Fair warning: If you’re going to read this book, I recommend a box of tissues... Or at least a break every now and then. Yet, it’s worth the strained—or even snapped—heartstrings.


Michael Allen-- Pardon my lack of macho manliness, but I don’t think I’ve ever cried as hard at the end of a novel as I did when I finished reading The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. For me, this book was a mountain of woman-made words like nothing I’ve ever read, or seen, or hiked before, nor will I ever again.

The power and sway of the writing makes the story feel plotless throughout, yet still completely captivating. The love of art and craftsmanship is brilliantly sewn into a weighty coming-of-age story, a bildungsroman, that cruises the line between this stinking, sinking, cluster-truck of a world; and the invisible, unknowable, un-improvable space between, behind, and in front of the ciphers I’m punching in now. Jaw dropping description. Irreverently religious. Un-piously holy.  A masterpiece of a story derived from an obscure masterpiece painting that miraculously survived destruction in the 1600s, which gets stolen by an unwilling hero who also miraculously survives destruction.

Not for those who like a simple hero’s journey tale. Some critics don’t like it. But for me it was unpredictable and sprinkled with untethered brilliance. Oh, and I guess it won some kind of an award, or something.

Student Picks: Brunt, Keane, Wolfe


Shawna-Lee Perrin-- Tinkering away at my thesis this semester, a quote by the Mountainview MFA’s own Mark Sundeen guides much of my work: “All literature is longing,” he said. Using this statement as my Rosetta stone for writing, I keep thinking about Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, which I read last spring.

The novel, set in 1987, is narrated by a kid named June. June grapples with the confusing, sometimes scary, world of being a girl at fourteen; not fitting in at school, an ever-widening chasm between her and her family, and starting to see adulthood looming on the horizon. She also recently lost her Uncle Finn, the person she was closest to in the world, to AIDS, a disease about which little was known at the time.

June’s ache at the loss of this connection is central, matched only by that of Finn’s longtime partner, Toby, who reaches out to June after Finn’s death. Together, they navigate grief, fear, and memory, finding a profound, though different, connection with each other.

Brunt harnesses such an atmosphere of heart-twisting longing that it’s often painful; that pain is one that I strive to inflict on my readers.


Margaret McNellis-- Of all the books on my reading list for my first MFA semester, Fever by Mary Beth Keane excited me the most—and it did not disappoint. Set in the early twentieth century, Fever describes the experience of Typhoid Mary beginning with her arrest. Keane artfully includes flashbacks to develop Mary’s character so that the reader sympathizes with her plight.

Speaking of careful story-weaving, Keane also incorporates the theme of addiction into Fever. For Mary, her addiction is cooking and everything that goes along with it: the creativity and the prestige among the working-class residents of Manhattan. For her lover, Alfred, his addictions become a hurdle for them both as he first deals with alcoholism and a subsequent drug addiction. 

Keane expertly paints a vibrant vision of New York City at the turn of the century, filling in the details of Mary’s world in a beautiful economy of language that enveloped and transported me. I couldn’t put this book down; my only regret was that it took only two days to read. I wanted so much more, even though Keane tells a compelling and complete story.


C. A. Cooke-- If you're looking for a book with multiple levels of theme and plot, but don't have six months to dedicate to David Foster Wallace, you will enjoy Gene Wolfe's novel, Peace

On the surface, the book seems to relate the life of an old man in the Midwest. As you continue through the narrative, you discover Wolfe is hinting at a story behind the story... One which is dark and sinister. Wolfe never directly tells you what is hidden. Rather, he hints at the darkness through the anecdotes and stories the characters tell one another, which shadow the courses of the narrator's life. At just over 250 pages, Peace is a novel which you can read in an afternoon, and come back to later to plumb its depths further. It is a story which will haunt you in all the right ways.