Archive for August, 2011

How much Irish literature can one read in one week?

If you’re working, the answer is, “Not that much.”  But  several books by Irish writers have spontaneously mushroomed on my coffee table, and it seems a good idea to read them.

I just finished Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love, an intense, poetic novel that is less perfect than her most famous books, The Death of the Heart (everyone’s favorite) and The Heat of the Day (a novel I like even more).  But it is graceful and concise, if slightly uneven, and the vivid characters wholly inhabit my imagination.  Bowen explores the strong bond among three Anglo-Irish women who loved, or imagine themselves in love with, the previous  owner of their country house, Guy, who died in World War I.

Twenty-year-old Jane, who has been educated in England, is home on a visit before taking her first job.  In the attic she finds a packet of love letters written by Guy, and she falls in love with the vivacious persona of the letters.  Her mother, Lilia, was engaged to Guy before the war, and Jane assumes the letters are to her mother.  But Antonia, Guy’s cousin, the pragmatic owner of Monefort and the patroness of the family, is uneasy, and soon Jane, too, cottons on to the fact that the letters are written to an unknown.

The dilapidated Irish mansion is the perfect background for the mixed feelings of vexation, dislike, and obligation that tie the two older women together.  Antonia, who inherited the house after Guy’s death, felt responsible for Lilia, the beautiful but stupid fiancée, and eventually arranged her marriage to Fred, a cousin who married Lilia in return for living and farming at Montefort.

And Jane romantically sees Guy’s ghost at a disappointing dinner at a rich neighbor’s house, where Jane fails to find anyone appropriate to love.

Over the course of the novel, Bowen also impressionistically reveals the nature of Antonia’s relationship with Guy.

Montefort, the house, is one of the main characters.

“For the small mansion had an air of having gone down:  for one thing, trees had been felled around it, leaving space impoverished and the long low roofline framed by too much sky.  The door no longer knew hospitality; moss obliterated the sweep for the turning carriage; the avenue lived on as a rutted track, and a poor fence, close up to the hosue, served to keep back wandering grazing cattle.  Had the facade not carried a ghost of style, Montefort would have looked, as it almost did, like the annex of its farm buildings…”

A World of Love ends abruptly, and the mood of the ending doesn’t match the sophistication and surprises of the rest of the novel.

So read her better known novels first.  But I still liked A World of Love.

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I was a freelance writer for 15 years and loved it.  I wrote features about poets, tai chi,  bomb squads, therapy dogs, bookstores, and where to get the best crabcakes.  But after writing similar stories for many years, and, indeed, sometimes interviewing the same people, I needed to do something different.

Some writers burn out and become editors.  Others turn to public relations.  PR is a good way to make money–and yet boring.   I must admit I look at annual reports, press releases, and brochures with despair. I avoid doing PR. The only PR I enjoy is organizing readings  for various venues, and I do this as a volunteer.

But here’s why I REALLY can’t do PR.  Journalists may not write the “truth”–stories are based on available information and interviews–but they do have more control.  With PR the slant is already determined.

The internet comprises both publicity and journalism. Take book bloggers.  Many are adamantly independent amateurs; others gradually become semi-professional publicists, deliberately or naively promoting merchandise.

It happens.  Publicists send bloggers gifts, and that starts the “cycle of PR co-dependency.”  Unlike powerful newspaper and magazine book editors, who deal with publicists daily and receive hundreds of thousands of free books, bloggers are easily flattered.  The next thing they know they’re reading books they wouldn’t otherwise read, or praising what they might not ordinarily praise.

I buy most of my books. I am in an optimal situation NOT to depend on publicists.  I do occasionally accept free books, though–probably ten a year.

There are good publicists and bad publicists. Some want to facilitate the ease with which bloggers can procure books.  Others want to coerce bloggers into praising whatever they’re promoting.   For bloggers, the  lack of an editor as a buffer zone can be a problem.  This summer my maverick blogger status led to two uneasy encounters with publicists.

So here’s the first  situation, and this is the good one, with the good publicist.  She offered to send me a copy of Keith Donohue’s Centuries of June.  I had planned to read it, and was very happy to receive it.  Donohue is an excellent writer, and Centuries of June is a skillfully wrought novel, a mix of interwoven short stories tied together by avant-garde, frequently humorous dialogue between a narrator who may or may not be dead and several ghosts.  But guess what?  It is not my kind of thing.  I felt obligated to write about it, and though my review was fair and I praised its good points, I said I didn’t personally like it much.  And does that do the publicist any good?  I doubt it.

But this publicist is very professional and was good-humored about it.

The second PR person was NOT good-humored about my review.  Brace yourself for a BIG mistake on my part.

Enthusiastic about small presses making the Booker longlist, I requested copies of A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards and Patrick McGuinness’s The Last Hundred Days.

So here’s what happened.  I read Yvvette Edwards’ A Cupboard Full of Coats,  said a few good things about Edwards’s bold voice, and then indicated the novel was very violent and abhorrent to me.   The PR person for this press was very, very unhappy.

So what does one do?  It is a small press, or I would have sat tight.  Concerned, I googled the book and discovered that almost no one had reviewed it.

Oh dear. So I looked over my review, realized my conclusion was harsh, and  changed it.

Is this selling out?  Yes.

I did say what I meant in the body of the review, but I softened the last paragraph.

I wouldn’t have written about this book had it not been published by a small press.

I can’t let this happen again.  I have always prided myself on being a journalist, not a PR person.

So back to my own books, and that’s the way it should be.

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Today I biked to Barnes & Noble in the rain.  Big raindrops.   But yesterday was a day of intensive housework, which I always think a waste of time, and I had to get out of the house.

I haven’t been shopping for books lately–oh, except for ordering a set of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence novels, when my old copies started fraying to dust in my hands.

It might be said I am sated with books.  There are thousands of books in my house.  Many of them call as I walk by:  “Read me, read me!”  And eventually I do.

If a storm temporarily shut down the city, as happened last January, I wouldn’t need to leave the bedroom.  There are 100 books  in the bedroom alone.  I could read Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest or The Collected Stories of William Trevor.  I could read through the storm, padding out to the kitchen occasionally to make sandwiches for my family.

But today I had to buy a gift, and, due to the internet’s influence, I had a long list of books to scrutinize. The reviews said, Good!  Good!  Good!   Reviewers just aren’t always truthful, though.  I was contented at the prospect of browsing.

First on the list was Deborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern, promoted as a homage to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Now this wasn’t just for me, you understand, though I wanted to read it.  I thought of it as a gift for The Relative.  She has no books in her nursing home room.  None.

And she likes Daphne du Maurier.  So I thought:  AHA!  This “homage” is the book for her.

Only I sat and read a few pages and it didn’t seem very well-written.  I was disappointed.  Somehow I couldn’t see fobbing this off on the Relative.  It really seemed a better idea to buy her a book by Daphne du Maurier.  So I found a copy of My Cousin Rachel and threw it in my basket.

Naturally I couldn’t leave without buying at least ONE book for myself.  Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan, a 1993 thriller being promoted as a neglected classic,  seems readable and has an intriguing opening paragraph:

“This goes back to the letter Susan Morrow’s first husband Edward sent her last September.  He had written a book, a novel, and would she like to read it?  Susan was shocked because, except for Christmas cards from his second wife signed ‘Love,’ she hadn’t heard from Edward in twenty years.”

Of course I am gullible about “lost masterpieces,” but I hope it will be entertaining, and I can definitely pass this on to the Relative when I’m done.

The other book I bought?  Lev Grossman’s The Magician King.  I love fantasy novels, and since everyone is raving about this, and some reviewers even compared it to the Narnia books, I decided to give it a shot.  I CAN’T read George R. R. Martin, the novel of the summer, but I need to keep up with SOME pop novels.

I am definitely stuck with this one.   The Relative thinks fantasy novels are “weird.”

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Obama at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Martha's Vineyard

President Obama has been shopping again – for books. At a Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard on Aug. 19, he bought two books for himself, Daniel Woodrell’s The Bayou Trilogy and Ward Just’s Rodin’s Debutante.

Isn’t it inspiring to have a president who reads literature?  He also brought three books from home to Martha’s Vineyard: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, David Grossman’s To the End of the Land,  and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.

So do you suppose he’s like the rest of us:  bringing several books on vacation so he can browse and graze and pick something to suit his mood?

According to an article in The Daily Beast, “Obama’s Book Club,” Obama has read 24 books since May 21, 2008.  It’s an excellent list.

My only criticism?  He needs to read more women writers.

So I’ve decided cheekily to make a list of women writers he might like to read on vacation.  Well, maybe next year’s vacation.

Here is the list.

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet. In this brilliant novel, Ann, a librarian, dreams about Robert Oppenheimer, Father of the Atom Bomb.   Suddenly Oppenheimer and two other physicists responsible for the bomb, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, magically appear in 2003 in Santa Fe, and are appalled by the results of their invention.  Soon the physicists, with Ann, and her garedener husband, take off in a caravan to preach world peace and nuclear disarmament.  Things do not, of course, go smoothly.

A Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich. This exquisite novel is a collection of beautifully written stories that fit together as a novel.  Erdrich relates how several generations of a group of American Indians in North Dakota are affected by racist accusations that they murdered a white family.

Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49. This extraordinarily well-written diary of a middle-aged housewife’s life in England during World War II was written for The Mass-Observation Archive, founded in 1937 to conduct social research on everyday life in England.

Nox by Anne Carson.  Carson is a classics professor at the University of Michigan. The title of the poem, Nox, means “night” in Latin and is used interchangeably with mors, “death.”   Carson’s elegy for her brother Michael, who died in 2000, is inextricably entangled here with  Catullus’ stunning elegy for his dead brother (Poem 101) . In fact, Carson’s poem is a homage to Catullus and an exploration of  the difficulties of translation, grief, and  customs honoring death across time and cultures.

Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden.  This autobiographical novel is based on Godden’s experiences when she moved to Kashmir with her two children to “live simply.”  Set in a gorgeous landscape poetically described, it delineates the family’s struggles and the resentment of the villagers when the rebellious, hip mother intrudes on village life and transgresses social barriers.

So that’s my list.   And if anyone has any other reading suggestions for President Obama (or anyone else, like for me), please add them.

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Blogging has declined among the Millennial Generation (age 18-33), according to a 2010 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.  Among adults over 33, however, blogging increased from 11% in 2008 to 14% in 2010.

Hurray for older adults.  We  know the value of developing ideas, or shall I say we’re familiar with the form of the essay?  We organize our thoughts in more than 240 characters.  Try more, many more, than 240 words.   Blogs don’t cut us off in the middle of a thought.

But I wonder:  will people blog ten years from now?  Will Ree Drummond continue to provide a daily dose of cattle ranching at Confessions of a Pioneer Woman?  Will Dovegreyreader still entertain (or annoy) readers with her perfect life (she can read AND knit), her free collections of Virago hardcover books  from publicists (“!!!Expletive!!!” my husband says), and the decoration of her tent at a literary festival with tapestries?

And how about the rest of my thoughtful, if lesser known, blogger friends?  Will we be Twittering and Facebooking instead of blogging, longer forms of communication truncated and outlawed as dangerous to governments?

Is there an argument to be made for the hundreds of thousands of rough drafts posted daily at blogs?

I’m in favor of blogs.  I’m also in favor of rough drafts.  True, it’s more professional to polish an essay over a week or a month or a year, but blogs are not necessarily for professionals.  Many of us enjoy posting reviews, columns, articles, and diaries in the attractive free space provided by Blogger and WordPress,  and appreciate the potential, even if it is a small potential, to share our writings with an audience.  Polishing becomes a pointless task anyway, unless you write for, say,  The Atlantic or The New Yorker, and few bloggers I know have those contacts.  Most of us write for little magazines when we publish at all.

So I’m perfectly fine with the rough-draft thing.  People say bloggers can’t write.  Perhaps they write as well as they are able, or as well as they feel  is necessary for blogs. Newspaper and magazine writers complain about bloggers’ ruining their profession.  They don’t, in my view, understand the broad range of blogs and sheer enjoyment of self-publishing.

Before bloggers were blamed, journalists were condemned for sloppy writing.  There have always been differences among novelists, poets, nonfiction writers,  and journalists–and now there are differences among bloggers.

Andrew Keen condemns bloggers in his book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. He says bloggers don’t do serious reporting and they may replace big media organizations.  And WHY would we want to do that, I wonder?

It’s not just blogging, of course. Nicholas Carr in his book What the Internet Is doing to Our Brains writes that the modern mind is fragmented by Google searches, links, email, and “interruption technology.”   He says we have given up commitment to books and serious articles for the quick fix of internet surfing.

Doris Lessing in her 2007 Nobel acceptance speech said of the internet and blogging: “We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.”

Blogging is right for many of us right now.  Yes, many bloggers are talented enough to write books or publish in magazines, but that is not the way the publishing business necessarily works.  And maybe some bloggers don’t want to do that.

Blogging is self-expression.

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Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament March

There is a long, long section in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City (Part Four, Chapter Four, pp. 427-466) about a famous peace march in the 1960s, organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).  The 54-mile march from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston to London took place on Easter weekends 1958-1963 (and was later revived). The famous peace sign was designed originally as a  CND logo  by Gerald Holtom.

Lessing’s description of the march is detached and moving at the same time. The heroine, Martha Quest, now middle-aged, is leftist but outgrew her political ideals years ago in Africa.  As she waits for her housemates, Mark and Lynda, under a tree, she observes the marchers, knowing that only a small core of  members of political organizations usually turn out.  She watches the good-natured protestors, mostly duffel-coated teenagers, and is touched and amused by their enthusiasm,  their cheering of some bystanders who are actually protesting their protest, whom they mistake for supporters.  Although the political climate is such that newspapers and TV are taking this seriously, she does not believe demonstrations will change things.

And she wonders why so many youths, middle-aged, and elderly people are protesting the bomb now?  Sadly, she knows they will give up politics soon.

“Who were ‘they’ this year, on this, the biggest of the Aldermaston Marches?  The phenomenon had reached its peak.  But why? Who knew?  Who knows how to chart such a curve?  It had started unexpectedly, had grown on its own logic, had reached its height, would now decline.  At the peak, this year, as at all similar peaks of political feeling, were thousands of people who had never before been near anything remotely political, and would soon drift off, to find, for one reason or another, anything remotely political rather distasteful. ‘Childish’ – that word would be revived again when it always is, at the beginning of a time of reaction.  Meanwhile the banners were those to be seen at any demonstration:  CND..Peace…Labour…Communist…Pacifist…Trade Union…Youth…Young…Jewish…German…French…Trotskyist…Anarchist..And then the theatre groups, the bands, and the dancers and the singers.”

I used to read this section as an overview of protests, shorthand for peace march experience, and so it is in a way.  Although I understood the emotions of the young and the greater detachment of older marchers, I never knew the history of Aldermaston to London.  But I finally looked up the Aldermaston Marches–I’m an American, and didn’t know the UK history.  It enhances Lessing’s novel to know the history.

I would love to read a book of first-person accounts of the peace movement in the U.S. or the UK, if there is such a book.

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Some of my friends insist that the best mysteries are as skillfully wrought as the classics.  And they also insist that Golden Age Detective Novels by Agatha Christie, Edmund Crispin, and Dorothy Sayers aren’t the only mysteries I should read.

You have to branch out to police procedurals, they said.

Okay.  Tough guy stuff.

Bring it on.  I’ve been reading P. D. James and Sue Grafton for years.

But American guys?  You’ve got to read the guys, too.  And you’ve got to read Ed McBain.

Is he like Mickey Spillane?  I had a dismal remembrance of a Mike Hammer novel by Spillane.  Mike was tough, and really sexist.

But they said Steve Carella, the protagonist of McBain’s 87th Precinct series, is married and a nice guy.

So I picked up a copy of Ed McBain’s ‘Til Death, published in 1959, one of the many, many books in his 87th Precinct series.  And you know what?  It’s really good. Almost a classic.  I’m sure some of his later books are classics.

Detective Steve Carella is charming and likable, an Italian-American cop in New York married to a deaf-mute woman, Teddy.  In ‘Til Death, Teddy is heavily pregnant with their first child.  Steve wakes up on a Sunday morning wishing he could sleep in, and sorry that he has to be celibate now that Teddy is so huge and the birth imminent.

McBain’s style is witty, casual, and apparently effortless.

“Detective Steve Carella blinked at the early Sunday morning sunshine, cursed himself for not having closed the blinds the night before, and then rolled over onto his left side.  Relentlessly, the sunlight followed him, throwing alternating bars of black and white across the white sheet.  Like the detention cells of the 87th, he thought.  God, my life has become a prison.”

Then the phone rings, and Sunday becomes a little more prison-like.  It is Carella’s sister’s wedding day, and her fiance, Tommy Giardano, has received an unexpected present–a box labeled “For the groom,” containing a black widow spider. Carella calls some of his cop friends to help patrol the wedding.  And since a few more threats come Tommy’s way, it turns out they are needed.

Ed McBain

Ed McBain was the pseudonym of Evan Hunter, best known for Blackboard Jungle, a novel about teaching in the inner city.  (Hunter started his career as a teacher.)  His agent insisted that he publish mysteries under a different name so fans wouldn’t object.  I think we know this kind of separation of genres very well.  John Banville writes mysteries under the name Benjamin Black, C. Day Lewis did under Nicholas Blake, and Carolyn Heilbrun as Amanda Cross.

‘Til Death is not only suspenseful, but humorous.  I like the banter. And Carella’s fellow cops are also distinctive characters.  His sister, Angela, is well, a bit womanish, but his wife, Teddy, is perceptive.

A good series–one I’m already hooked on.

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