Wednesday, December 02, 2009

First Wednesday Book Club

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book review blogs@Barrie Summy

Landscape with Fragmented Figures, Jeff Vande Zande (Bottom Dog Press, 2008)

It is hard to imagine this book taking place in a locale other than Michigan. If soldiers returning from war can be said to suffering post-traumatic stress disorders, many people in Michigan suffer similarly. Too many years of economic downturn takes a toll. An urban scholar doing a study of cities that have badly floundered, failed to find anyone with much optimism about the future of Detroit. This book captures that pessimism and angst.

Ray Casper is an artist, teaching at a small college in Bay City, Michigan. He's done some good work, is known as an inspirational teacher, has a nice relationship with his girlfriend, Diane. Suddenly, things begin to go awry. Diane, also an artist, leaves him. He loses his will to paint and desire to teach. He is unable to find solace with colleagues or friends. He is adrift even before his father dies, leaving many unresolved issues. His brother, a ne-er do well, Ray has never come to terms with, comes to live with him. Things continue their downward spiral as Ray comes to resemble his brother, Sammy, more and more.

This was a difficult book to read and yet I never put it down. Michigan is no longer hospitable to a diverse group of people: the blue-collar ,Sammy; the artist, Ray; the student, Billy, who finds little support for finding a way to make a living or getting an education. The writing is fluid, the story poignant, but the book's most important strength is its clear-sighted and unabashed presentation of truth. That truth also examines the nature of art and the artist.

There are no heroes in this book. Just real people trying to find some joy in life, trying to find a reason to go on.

My four favorite books this year were written by writers from Michigan: Michael Zadoorian's THE LEISURE SEEKERS, Bonnie Jo Campbell's AMERICAN SALVAGE, Megan Abbott's BURY ME DEEP and Jeffrey Vande Zande's LANDSCAPE WITH FRAGMENTED FIGURES. I highly recommend them. All four of these books offer a bleak landscape (Megan's in the 1930s, the rest contemporary). One with fragmented figures, perhaps. How could it be otherwise?

Interview with Jeff Vande Zande

1)The economic crisis, especially in Michigan, plays a large role in this book, almost functioning as a character in its ability to shape and destroy lives. Was this your intention from the start or did it rise up as the book took shape?

I started the book four years ago . . . when things weren't quite as dire as now, but the writing was on the wall. I'd been thinking about the future of Michigan, but also the future of the United States (with Michigan serving as a microcosm) for some time. Still, I didn't know I was going to write this particular book. The book started as a sentence. I was lying in bed, listening to a storm receding over Bay City, and the opening line of the book came to me. I didn't know anything about this guy lying in bed, but I do remember that it was sometime after midnight, and I just had to get out of bed, go to my study, and jot down that first line. When I read the line in the morning, it still rang true to me, and I went from there. I think that opening line was like a zipper that opened up things about art, the economy, and family ties that had been on both my conscious and my sub-conscious for some time. It's so funny though . . . how little I knew about anything in Ray's life. I didn't know about Diane or Sammy . . . certainly not the enigmatic Kleminger. I just wrote and discovered. As I wrote, and set the story in Bay City, Michigan's economy -- the Midwest's economy -- simply had to become a moving force in all of the characters' lives.)

2) Along those lines, would this have been a very different book if you lived in North Carolina or Texas?

Yes, I think it would. Like any state, Michigan is a place unto itself. Its geography, demographics, juxtaposition of city and wilderness . . . and the Great Lakes. The Mackinac Bridge. The Upper Peninsula and its mythologies! It's a unique place. As, I imagine, any state is. That's not to say, however, this is a book for Michigan readers exclusively. I think most people could connect to what both Ray and Sammy are going through.)

3) What writers have been most influential in your growth as a writer?

Hemingway. Carver. Calvino. Jim Daniels. Bonnie Jo Campbell . . . and I would say my writing buddies, Matt Bell and Josh Maday) Who are you reading now? (right now, I'm reading my students. Man, they are turning in papers left and right. However, I just finished Ken Meisel's powerful collection of poems, Beautiful Rust . . . poems about Detroit. I also read that Anis Shivani has a collection of short stories out that I intend to buy.

4) Tell us about your other books.

I have another novel, Into the Desperate Country (March Street Press), a collection of poems, Poems New, Used, and Rebuilds (March Street Press), and a collection of short stories, Emergency Stopping and Other Stories (Bottom Dog Press).

5) What's next?

In 2010, Whistling Shade Press will release my novella and short stories collection entitled, Threatened Species and Other Stories.

Jeff Vande Zande lives in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, in Midland with his wife, son, and daughter, where he teaches at Delta College.


Charles Gramlich said...

I'll keep an eye open for these books. I'll probably have a big book shopping spree as soon as final exams are over.

Barrie said...

I do enjoy a book with no real hero, but with people just trying to navigate life. It's the Canadian Lit major in me, I think. ;) I enjoyed the interview, as well.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Barrie. He seems like a nice guy and the book was more personal, more heartfelt than most.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Patti, very interesting review. It sounds like Jeff has encapsulated the experience of a lot of people in the US these days. What he said about Michigan being a microcosm of America really struck me.

Jenn Jilks said...

Excellent work! This is true, isn't it: "Just real people trying to find some joy in life, trying to find a reason to go on."
These are *my* heroes.
Thanks for visiting, twice! :-)

Sarahlynn said...

This one's going straight onto my Christmas list for my Michigan-based sister and brother-in-law!

Anonymous said...

If I can chime in . . . I'm more than willing to offer discounts (and signed copies) to readers of this site. Check out my deal on the book at

Thanks, Patti, so much for your kind words about the book and your thoughtful interview questions.



Sarah Laurence said...

It was really interesting to get to know the author behind the book. This novel seems a bit like But Not For Long, which I reviewed in October. Even if the line up between economy and literature was a coincidence, it makes for better reading. Perhaps the novelists saw it coming. Great review!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for being a guest, Jeff. I hope the success you deserve comes.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

That sounds like a bit of a tough read. Although I'm sure it's quite moving.

I love how you added all the extra tidbits of information to your review.