News & Features » Miscellany

"Clay's Quilt" by Silas House, and "In America" by Susan Sontag

Recently Read

Piecing it All Together
When Clay Sizemore was 3 years old, his mother was murdered, and his mother's sister, Easter, raised him. He grew up among loving aunts, uncles and cousins, but he was always lonely. Always trying to understand and put together his own history. He picked up scraps and pieces of his life like the patchwork quilts made by his great-uncle Paul, but he never seemed to bring closure to his mother's death, and his strange past.

As an adult, Clay works as a coal miner in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky, where he grew up. He works hard and plays harder with his lifelong friend Cake and his cousin Dreama, but he wants a family of his own. When he meets and falls in love with Alma, he is sure this is the piece of the quilt that has always been missing.

Clay learns to form strong bonds with his friends and family. Those bonds, along with his love of Alma and the Cumberland Mountains, help him lose his loneliness and find the happiness he has longed for his entire life.

The author Silas House is a mail carrier in rural Appalachia. He lives in Lily, Ky., (population 800). "Clay's Quilt" (Algonquin, $21.95) is his first novel and is beautifully written. Lee Smith writes, "A young writer of immense gifts". I agree. — Loyce Andrews

American Transformations
"An actor transforms," says Madame Marina Zalenska, nee Maryna Zalezowska then Countess Dembroska by marriage, the starring character in Susan Sontag's "In America," (Farar Straus & Giroux, $26), the 2000 National Book Award winner for fiction.

And in large measure, "In America" is a novel about transformations. As an immigrant, Maryna Zalezowska transforms herself when she arrives in America. As an actress, she transforms herself onstage. She even transforms details of her past to create the star she believes her American public desires. Her importunate lover Ryszard transforms the truth when he conjures fiction out of facts. And even her son Piotr becomes Peter in America.

So, too, does Sontag transform into fiction the true story of the celebrated Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, who came to America in the late 19th century. This recasting of history is the same technique Sontag used in "The Volcano Lover," in which she re-imagined the love affair of Horatio.

"In America" is fascinating fiction with an edge of fact and a pointed commentary on what it means to be American. The novel chronicles Maryna's travels from the Polish stage to the Utopian community she attempts to establish in California with her husband, her lover and a handful of Poles who share her dream. When the adventure fails, Maryna transforms herself again, this time into Madame Marina Zalenska, and makes a triumphant debut on the American stage.

In addition to telling a compelling story, the novel includes a commentary on the act of writing that manifests itself in the miscellany of narrative techniques Sontag uses: diary entries, letters, monologues, literary allusions, lines quoted from plays and dramatic scenes. The narrative point-of-view transforms itself as often as Maryna changes costumes. These techniques tend to call attention to themselves, but they make interesting reading, nonetheless.

"In America" is a love story, a travel adventure and a historical novel. But, finally, the novel is a declaration that in America we can play any role that we imagine for ourselves.

— Katherine Jackson

Heads up:
This week (April 4-8), Richmond will host the largest conference on the literature of Africa ever held in North America. Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond and the city of Richmond are jointly presenting this African Literature Conference in conjunction with the 27th annual meeting of the African Literature Association.

Many well-known authors from Africa will be here in addition to Nuruddin Farah, a Somalian novelist and author of "Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora," who will receive the national Fonlon-Nichols Award for work that has promoted human rights.

Nadine Gordimer, 1991 Nobel Prize winner, will be one of the speakers.

For more information visit or call Richard Priebe at 828-1331 or Louis Tremaine at the University of Richmond.

Add a comment