If you’ve heard me talk about my experience in the MFA program at Pacific University, particularly my last two semesters, you’ve likely heard me talk about my advisor, Mary Helen Stefaniak. If you haven’t heard me gush about how much I learned during my two years at Pacific, haven’t heard me rave about how sharp and perceptive Mary Helen was as a teacher, I’m telling you all that now, and then I want you to forget it, so that you will hear the following recommendation with no doubts about my ability to be objective.
Go read Mary Helen Stefaniak’s novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. Read it now. Do not put it down until you are done.
“She laughed, she cried,” my partner told a friend about my reading of this book. Usually when I read, I grumble about a book’s ability to conjure up place and time, about its attention to detail and its depiction of women—about how long it will take me to finish it. (Usually I do not like reading.) I won’t spoil The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia by enumerating all the emotions it elicited, but I will tell you that this is the first book in which I marked Good Sentences to copy into my new Journal of Good Sentences—a green spiral Mead notebook, a throwback to my elementary school writing days—and that The Cailiffs’s sentences fill pages of that Mead notebook. Which is to say, my book-clutching love for The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia doesn’t stem so much from starry-eyed gratitude for a couple of incredible grad school semesters, as much as it springs from awe at show-stopping, heartaching sentences. It’s full of examples of good writing not only at the sentence level but also in the arc of the novel’s development. It showcases what I love about books like Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, books that marry history and fiction in a narrative that teaches its readers to think about how the past and present are linked together, about how the world is more complicated, more beautiful than we often notice. And I’m glad I read The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia after graduation, when I had time to savor every one of those good sentences, when I didn’t have to write a reading commentary about it. When I just got to write a blog post entreating you to Read. This. Book. Now.