Wednesday, October 7, 2009

But Not For Long by Michelle Wildgen: Review & Interview

But Not For Long by Michelle Wildgen is a most sensual novel; it engages all the senses, especially taste.  Food plays a central role in the lives of three characters who live and dine together at a “sustainable food” co-op. It is also a story of this Great Recession, played out in a liberal university town in heartland USA.  Gas stations are shutting and charity is strained.  The story unravels over a three day blackout, a time of “almost festive frustration.”

Middle-aged Hal works for a non-profit that brings donated meals to elderly shut-ins.  He grew up hunting deer in the woods but is now a vegetarian.  His hippy-like existence and buying organic leaves him with few savings.  After his mother dies, Hal lavishes attention on an elderly woman, whom he doesn’t even like.  He fears he will be even worse off in his old age than this client, but taking extra time to help her might cost him his job.

Hal’s bisexual housemate, Karin, is as wholesome as fresh milk.  She grew up in a trailer park and now writes a column on small farms for a dairy industry journal (once again the food motif.)  She avoids makeup to win over the farmers but doesn’t know how to milk a cow.  Karin does know a lot about artisan cheese.  The descriptions will make your mouth water.  There is humor too:

“Karin liked her farmer’s hands filthy, her cows named, and her cheese wrapped in limp chestnut leaves.  Anything else was unnatural.”

The newest housemate, Greta,  is more complicated and abrasive.  She’s a fundraiser for a private college and thinks in monetary terms.  As for the food connection, Greta wines and dines wealthy alumni in hopes of landing large donations.  An aging beauty, Greta dresses in silk for work, and her idea of loosening up is not shaving her armpits on weekends.  She is the least likely person to find in this bohemian community.  Ironically, Hal is attracted to Greta and the luxury she represents. 

In the opening scene, a dock has been cut loose, stranding a dog (the real Morrison St. dock by Michelle Wildgen is pictured above.) An empty chair indicates the owner may have drowned earlier.  The dog swims toward shore but struggles to stay afloat.  Who will play hero?  This narrative device is a great way to test the three main characters.  The story launches with momentum and a feeling of unease.  The cut raft is a central metaphor of how adrift the three housemates are in life.

The narrative tension increases when Greta’s alcoholic husband shows up dangerously inebriated on their front porch.  He is the reason Greta is living in the co-op.  What are the housemates to do?

To read But Not For Long is a literary treat, but it requires patience.  The author loves descriptive detail, and the pace suffers from too much back story and exposition.  Yet these pictures Wildgen paints with words are well worth seeing.  In one plotline, Karin visits a young farmer who has lost her husband and fears for the farm’s future.  The images are ominous: an empty beehive of abandoned honey and a dark cave full of ripening cheese.   Still, the fields are full of wildflowers, lavender and clover.  The book begs analysis and slow reading.  Satire makes it fun.

Michelle Wildgen is a master of metaphor and a champion of character.  Irony rules.  She has a message too: modern life is divorced from the sensual, earthiness of life and community.  Eat local farm food and chew with care.  Savor it.

Photo of Michelle Wildgen by Kate Huntington

My Interview of Michelle Wildgen

In addition to being an author, Michelle Wildgen is senior editor of the literary magazine Tin House. She has recently moved from NYC back to Wisconsin where both of her novels are set.  Wildgen is a frequent farmer market shopper.

Sarah Laurence: The economic malaise in But Not For Long feels so current.  I recall that you were writing this novel back in spring of 2008, when I reviewed You’re Not You, your first novel.  Did you change the narrative in response to last year’s stock market crash or was this a coincidence? 

Michelle Wildgen: Let’s see—I was about to say I didn’t revise it in response at all, but come to think of it, it was last fall that I was adding some last pieces about Hal and his nonprofit’s crisis, which does stem from economic fallout, so that facet was at least partially in response. But at the same time, the entire book and its fears about the general infrastructure, the faltering natural world, and the nagging fear that the people supposedly in charge are not really paying attention, was already in place well before that—for the book as well as for quite a few people, I’d guess.

SL: But Not For Long appears to reference indirectly the nonfiction book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and also the Slow Food Movement.  What was your inspiration?

MW: In researching co-ops, I found that many were organized according to some principle, and I thought this might be a good one for my co-op. Once I follow that thread it often takes me somewhere interesting, as with the sections at the cheesemaker’s farm, which are some of my favorites. I wouldn’t say either book or organization was a direct inspiration, though absolutely I drew on both for research, because the ideas felt appropriate to this world and pique my interest.

SL: Food, especially from local organic farms, features in both of your novels.  You are also a food writer.  Where did you develop this passion?

MW: I just started cooking in high school because I had read a few recipes or descriptions of dishes that I’d never had; I wanted to taste them, so I learned how to make them. This was before grocery stores improved so much, and I remember arguing with my mother over what a “shitake” was and whether the Acme Click would have one.

Food appeals to me in the same way literature does—in some ingrained way I respond to this, want to know it and experience it in as many ways as I can. It just gives me pleasure to write about food, talk about food, look at photos of food. I’m really very greedy.

SL: Family background haunts the characters in But Not For Long.  What was your family and hometown like?

MW: It’s a curse for a writer in some ways, especially a food-obsessed writer who suspects she really should have been Italian, but I grew up smack in the middle of the middle class in a perfectly pleasant suburb in northeastern Ohio. There wasn’t a lot of drama. And actually that may be part of why I often like to write about people and families whose lives don’t look crazily turned upside down—instead I tend to write about mundane life just as it starts to slip off the edges.

SL: Name some of your favorite novelists.

MW: I love Alice Munro, Antonya Nelson, Laurie Colwin, Lorrie Moore, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, off the top of my head.

SL: What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

MW: Once my teacher, Mary Morris, was just baffled by all of us grad students fretting over making changes to our stories—Because what if it didn’t make it better?—and she said, So what? You save a new copy and number them—Deathless Prose No. 1, Deathless Prose No. 2—and you try out different versions. You don’t like it, you go back. It’s mortifying that I had to have this explained to me, but it totally freed me up, and if you dig around my computer you’ll see endless folders of Novel 1, Novel 2, Novel 20….

SL: What is your next book project?

MW: I know it will be a novel, but I’m still in the pondering stages and it’s hard to say what shape it will take. Things may change, but at the moment I’m thinking I would love to stay funny and satirical, something sharp but light.

But Not For Long by Michelle Wildgen
will be released on October 13, 2009.

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@Barrie Summy

Blog Watch: Through blogging we share our triumphs and our losses.  Congratulations to Donna @ The Doll Sweet Journal on the birth of her baby boy!  My thoughts are with Barrie Summy from our book review club and with Jane Green. Both lost a dear friend recently.

Note: I'll be offline this morning while my new computer is being serviced (missing/corrupted fonts.)


tina said...

Interesting book and interview Sarah.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Being a big supporter of farmer markets and studying food history--I think this will be a good book for me to read.
The interview was great and as always I loved your pictures!!

Tracy :)

Stacy Nyikos said...

Sounds like a sumptuous read for heart, body and soul. Yummy. Must find. And as an aside, what is it with our wanting our books paced as quickly as our lives? Has it always been that way?

kayerj said...

. . . these pictures Wildgen paints with words are well worth seeing . . .
This sentence in your review is enought to entice me. If you want to read my review for the month, Two Old Women by Velma Wallis you’ll find it here.

pattinase (abbott) said...

You really put a lot of effort into this review. Made me want to read it.

Keri Mikulski said...

Excellent review. Thanks! Sounds amazing and interesting. :)

Kelly H-Y said...

The book sounds wonderful! And, your photos are absolutely divine!!!!

Barrie said...

Anyone who lists Alice Munro as one of their favorite authors is a friend of mine! I'm wondering right along with Stacy--when did we start wanting all books to be fast paced? When we got sucked into this crazy frenetic society we race around in?

Anil P said...

You captured the landscape well with a fine snapshot of an interview.

Her "modern life is divorced from the sensual, earthiness of life and community." makes much sense.

Anonymous said...

I love books with food and having lived in the Pacific Northwest, love to see how the local food culture is expressed and nurtured.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, you’d like the gardening/agriculture elements of this book.

Tracy, yes, this is a book practically written for you.

Stacy, good point about the value of slow paced books. Even with the modern sensibility behind this novel, it feels of another time. It’s a pastoral novel with an edge of satire.

Kaye, I think you’d like the novel very much. The book you reviewed sounds very intriguing too.

Patti, glad to hear the effort was worth it!

Keri, it was most interesting and original.

Kelly, thank you!

Barrie, thanks for hosting yet another fabulous book review club. Alice Munro is one of my favorite authors too. Wildgen is also a keen and somewhat cynical observer of character. Wildgen’s writing is sunnier than Munro’s, though. Good answer to Stacy. Part of the joy of reading, is slowing down.

Anil, your blog allows readers to slow down and look too.

Kathy, if you love books with food, you’ll love Wildgen’s writing. The only problem is you’ll get hungry.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Lovely review, as usual. The food element definitely has me intrigued. And I love how you include photos--they make the review all the more colorful.

A Cuban In London said...

I loved the interview and the book review.

One thought on the descriptive nature of the novel is that if you're going to write about a three-day blackout, you better come prepared with some heavy past baggage.

From what you write, it seems to me that the fundraiser character was introduced to throw the plot off balance, on purpose. This is a technique that sometimes pulls it off and sometimes it doesn't. It depends on the reader as much as on the writer's capability to justify that introduction.

Great photos as usual. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyssa, it worked that my photos of Maine feel a bit like rural Wisconsin (without the sea.) I asked the author for the inspirational photo, and she took the shot of the lake. This is a most tasty book.

ACIL, there is plenty of baggage in this novel. The blackout works well in the modern world for the pastoral theme. Greta wasn’t very likable, but she was a good foil to the do-good characters. There was something very human in all of them. Greta’s alcoholic husband was the unsettling plot device, but Wildgen’s writing goes beyond literary artifact. Still, plot takes a backseat to character and situation. There is an improv. quality to it. The fine writing holds it together.

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyssa, I forgot to add: the photo of the cattle is from my sabbatical in England. That's Port Meadow in Oxford. While I'm at it, the farmers' market and tractor photos are from Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick. The swimming dog is my Stella at Fort Popham Beach.

Bee said...

I admire Alice Munro, but I LOVE Laurie Colwin! It's wonderful that you were able in include an interview with the author alongside your tempting review. I definitely lean toward books which feature the "mundane life" at the moment it suffers slippage. (I'm obsessed with Alison Lurie at the moment. Her work could be described in just this way.) Also, you KNOW how much I love to read about anything food-related.

The only problem (in terms of my own reviews) is that I seem to be following in your reading wake . . . Olive Kitteridge, That Old Cape Magic, and no doubt, But Not For Long . . .

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, you’ll love But Not For Long, especially as the “domestic sensualist.” I should try Laurie Colwin (double recommendation from you and Michelle) and Alison Laurie. The book suggestion tides flow both ways. I read Enger’s Peace Like a River thanks to you and Tessa. Also, there can never be too many reviews of recent works by new, not well-known authors.

Rose said...

An interesting premise for a novel, and another great review, Sarah! I always enjoy your interviews with the authors; they really help to give some insight into the purpose of the novel.

I'm not a "foodie," but find the Slow Food Movement and the renewed interest in farmers' markets intriguing as well as a positive change. Ironically, I think I grew up with both--most of our food came from my mother's garden, and much of the meat from my dad's livestock:)

Angela Ackerman said...

Oh I love books that aren't afraid to explore the 'other' senses! Thanks for the heads up on this one.

Cheffie-Mom said...

Your reviews are always great!! Love the food elements of this one -- the photos are wonderful!!

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, I’d be interested to hear your take on this novel, given your farmer’s daughter background. I enjoyed your review of Dan Brown's latest too.

Angela, welcome to my blog! I enjoyed reading about the sensual approach to writing on your blog too.

CM, thanks and congratulations on your newspaper syndication!

Linda McLaughlin said...

Very interesting review, Sarah. Not sure it's my cup of tea, but it's really interesting to see a novel out already that reflects our current economic woes.

Sarah Laurence said...

Linda, the book focuses more on relationships than on the economy. This one was my cup of tea, but we all have different tastes. I like how our book review club exposes us to new flavors.

walk2write said...

I've always heard that the best literature invites you to dine. The book sounds like a good read for this time of year. I love that image of cheese ripening in a cave. Great review, Sarah!

Sarah Laurence said...

W2w, welcome back and thank you! Somehow I lost your url when reorganizing my sidebar. It’s nice to reconnect with you.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

It sounds very interesting indeed! Especially since I know the dog made it back to shore!!

Sarah Laurence said...

Pamela, I won't spoil the suspense of novel, but, yes, in real life Stella made it back to shore to chase more tennis balls in the sea.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

I like your new template Sarah, my eyes are free to roam all over your great photos now.

Thanks for another in-depth, interesting review, and wonderful interview. I learned a lot from the great comments and your responses as well.

Sarah Laurence said...

MS, good eye spotting the new template. When I used the updated text editor, I found that it didn’t fit my circa ’08 template. This is still minima but stretchy. Left and right align photos jump around the text a bit, but I like how it lets the reader decide how wide to view the screen. I should mention something about this in blog watch next week as I only discovered the problem after publishing. Definitely, the comments and the discussion make the review. Thanks!

Dawn Maria said...

Great review and interview. Funny how we get so attached to certain parts of a work, that the thought of taking them out is so terrifying, but really, the choice is always ours-what to keep, what to throw away.

Cynthia Pittmann said...

What a great plot and setting. I know I will enjoy this one.

Thanks for the review, Sarah.

Love the atmosphere created by these photos, too. Oh, your watercolor in the earlier post is so uplifting...I love the way the water seems to move.

TBM said...

I love this pairing of book review and author interview, Sarah! What a treat for YOUR readers :-)

☆sapphire said...

Hello Sarah

I've enjoyed reading your review on the book which features food and its connection.
O I once thought it would be pretty difficult to turn the idea(food theme) into a book....
Middle-aged Hal sounds very interesting!
I like your last picture very much.
Autumn leaves are so beautiful.

SG said...

Very interesting storyline and an excellent review.. Thanks for the interview.
The pictures, as always are fantastic!

Sarah Laurence said...

DM, good point about choices in writing. Like Wildgen, I save several versions of my manuscript. I don’t think I’ve ever reinstalled a cut scene, but I always feel better for saving it. It’s also a good back up in case a newer version gets corrupted.

Cynthia, this novel is your type of book on so many levels. Watercolor works especially well for capturing the movement of water. Thanks!

JAPRA, I enjoy posting the review/interviews as it helps me understand the book better. I’d do them more often only they are more work. Glad to hear it’s appreciated. I'm working on another paired one for the next book review club post.

Sapphire, Wildgen does a great job of making food work in her narrative. Hal was an interesting character – full of contradictions but aware of them. I’ll have more autumn leaves on my next post.

Phoenix, thank you!

cynthia newberry martin said...

Yes, I agree. So nice to have your review of But Not for Long and then your interview with Michelle Wildgen. I know Michelle from workshops at Tin House and she is nice on top of being a good writer. And I third the vote for Laurie Colwin.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, thanks for the author recommendation. I will have to check out Laurie Colwin once I get through my pile. Yes, Michelle is very nice. It must have been fun working with her. Such a small world!

Charlotte A said...

Great accompanying photos, too. But why oh why do I not like radishes MORE?

Sarah Laurence said...

Charlotte, you too? I always feel like I should love them. I felt the same way today about a whole wheat unsweetened raspberry muffin at our favorite coffee shop. A little more sweetness goes a long way.

Sarah Laurence said...

MORE REVIEWS of But Not For Long:

today's NYT Book Section

this week's People Magazine

Donna said...

Hi Sarah, thanks for leaving a note about my son's birth. How sweet of you!