Last night, Tara and I went to the last reading of the 2008-2009 PEN/Faulkner reading series, featuring Amy Bloom and Susan Choi at the Folger Theatre in D.C. I’m a fan of Bloom’s short stories, but didn’t know Choi’s work; we were meeting friends from Baltimore who are fans of and friends with Susan Choi but didn’t know Amy Bloom’s writing; and Tara knew neither woman’s work. So in each case, we were getting new experiences.
The readings themselves were quite good. Bloom read the opening of her new novel Away, a confident, compelling excerpt that shuttled between the young protagonist’s experiences trying to become a seamstress in 1924 New York and her memories of having lost her family in a Russian pogrom. Choi then sampled several sections of her new novel, A Person of Interest: a hospital scene in which her professor protagonist reflects on the bomb that killed a neighboring colleague; a mowing scene (literally, with a lawnmower) where he reflects on his daughter’s childhood and the neighboring family; and a tense scene in which the media discusses how and why he’s become a “person of interest” in the investigation.
Our take? Though Tara and I enjoyed the evening overall, we ended up buying neither author’s latest book. Choi’s plot sounds more like our kind of story, but the reading didn’t draw us in fully — in part because neither Tara nor I are very fond of readings that jump around, trying to summarize long stretches of plot to catch us up to the next excerpt. Bloom’s style — in the novel excerpt as in her short stories — is mesmerizing; you just want more of it; but still we didn’t pick up her novel either. Too much to read already right now, and frankly, historical fiction sometimes lags a little low on our lists anyway.
And we both decided that the post-reading q&a is almost always a nightmare; last night’s first question asked Bloom to explain the last paragraph of her new novel, which most readers in the woman’s book club thought had been put there to confuse the reader — a question that simultaneously seemed to insult the author and sought an answer that might ruin the book for anyone who hadn’t read the novel and, unlike us, might have planned to read it! Bloom handled the question deftly… and then the questioner pressed more: No, really, just tell me what happens at the end….
Despite such pitfalls, the authors were charming and often funny during that last part of the program — especially Choi, whose wit simply sparkled.
For a sample of what you might have missed, check out Amy Bloom’s recent “Writing Life” column for the Washington Post Book World, and the sidebar video of a short interview with Bloom by Marie Arana.