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Thursday, January 09, 2003

What I Finished Reading Recently:

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

I first heard about this book in an interview with another author (whose name escapes me at the moment, but it was someone like Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou) on NPR about a year ago. They asked the famous writer about her own favorite novels and, without hesitation, she mentioned this one, and spoke passionately and at length about the influence it had had on her. So I had to seek it out.

To my surprise, the book is extremely slim; just 180 pages, and most of them contain a great deal of white space. In fact, it's almost as if author Brooks, better known as a poet than a novelist, had written a poetry book in novel form. And that description could apply to the style as well as the layout -- the prose is sparse but extremely vivid, telling the story of main character Maud Martha, from childhood to middle age, in a series of brief glimpses, each so indelible that by the time you're finished, it almost seems as if you've read an epic-length novel.

The subject matter is small - one working class black woman's fairly ordinary life, growing from young school girl through adolescent crushes, young marriage, motherhood and life with her husband and child. But the economy of the story is truly remarkable. Hopes, dreams, fears, frustrations, births, deaths, love, and tummultuous relationships are all portrayed here, with some significant episodes - such as Maud Marth's first adolescent stirrings of physical desire with her first beau - told in less than two short pages.

To someone who has always struggled (and often failed) to acheive such elegant economy in my own writing, this novel was a truly eye-opening experience...and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who needs or wants to see just how much a gifted writer can do with very few words in a very small space. It's really quite lovely.

posted by Elizabeth 9:25 AM

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