Throwback Post: June 2006 – Lost in Digitization


From 2006 through 2011, I wrote a blog for North Suburban Library System, the now-defunct consortium which included the library I worked for. I wrote about books, authors, libraries in general and my own, and topics relevant to that period of time. Looking back over the posts is nostalgic. It’s like a time capsule.

Re-reading what I wrote reminds me of the urgency serious readers felt upon the upsurge in eBooks, the fear bound books would give way to digital. J.K. Rowling was still publishing books in the Harry Potter series, and I was still a librarian.

Some of these are a bit rough, hopefully not as well-written as I’d produce today, considering it’s been a decade and I’d like to think I’ve grown as a writer. Still, I wanted to keep a selection and thought what better way than transplanting them here.

The first of these I’ve left as is, no edits.




Ever thought about how the age of the blog will impact the future of arts and letters? Specifically, what will become of the collected letters and diaries of today’s great authors once they’re gone, considering so many of them are using online forums to blog their thoughts?

Imagine if such great diarists as Samuel Pepys and Virginia Woolf had lived in the age of the internet. How different would their collected letters and diaries be?

Pepys constructed a rather elaborate code in the writing of his diaries, a fact that indicates he knew people would puzzle over them. He probably snickered all the way to the grave, knowing how people would scratch their heads over his diaries. It worked for a long time, too, and the literary detectives were baffled a good long time. Pepys died in 1703 and the first edition of his diaries wasn’t published until 1825.

The fact of the matter is, the cheeky thing had actually tucked a key for his shorthand into some books shelved above the actual diaries themselves. Still, it took years for scholars to locate it and then puzzle out his volumes and volumes of handwritten diaries.

If Pepys were writing today would he just make up a blog pseudonym for himself (a blogonym?) and hide behind that, instead of his elaborate system of shorthand? Instead of scratching out his diary on sheets of vellum, employing his trusty quill pen, he’d type them out on his laptop.

Decidedly unromantic, if you ask me.

Virginia Woolf left behind a wealth of letters, diaries and manuscripts. If she hadn’t handwritten them we wouldn’t know about her penchant for violet ink, nor would we see her scratchings out, her little doodles along the margins, etc. If she’d typed them on her computer all we’d have to analyze would be her choice of font, use of bold and italics, and how often she failed to scan for homonym typos. Spell check would take care of all her endearing mispellings (and she did have a few of those), and all would be uniform and sanitized.

Imagine if, after she’d typed out her now famous suicide note to husband Leonard and best friend Vita Sackville-West, there’d been a delivery error. How ironic to get a Fatal Error message while sending your suicide note, eh?

What, then, will the future of the collected writings of authors be like? Instead of tracking down handwritten documents we’ll have to send in the Geek Squad to tap into their hard drives, as well as the hard drives of those with whom they corresponded. The search will be on for their Blackberries, their cell phone records and even their iPods. Handwritten documents? What are those?

While it is rather satisfying to read the blogs of today’s writers, it still gives one pause thinking what this will mean for the future. It’s a mixed blessing. We hear more from them during their lifetimes, and they’re definitely far more accessible, but once they’re gone what we’ll have left will be far less personal.

I guess we’ll have to reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of progress, but personally I think a lot of the charm will be lost in the process.

Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins

Poormissfinch_2 Is this book ever heating up.

Here’s the scenario:

An Italian widow comes to live with the Finch family, to be a companion to the blind daughter who was the product of Rev. Finch’s marriage to his first wife, a woman who promptly died after the birth of little Lucilla. Lucilla was born with her sight, but at one year of age was struck blind.

Lucilla does very well for herself using her other senses, and takes justifiable delight and pride in her independence, yet the Finches feel she needs a companion with whom to share her days.  For one thing, the second Mrs. Finch has FOURTEEN CHILDREN to care for, and can’t keep watch on them and Lucilla at the same time. Enter her companion, whose real purpose in the book is to be the narrator of Lucilla’s life.

Lucilla falls in love with Oscar Dubourg, after hearing his voice one day. Eventually he also falls in love with the beautiful blind girl, but after a head injury suffered during a robbery at his shop (he’s a gold/silversmith who creates lovely sculptures, vases, etc.) he develops epilepsy, a fact that threatens his marital plans with Lucilla. One day a specialist tells Oscar he can, in fact, be cured, but the price is high. Silver nitrate will cure his epilepsy, but it will also turn him a dark blueish black color. He thinks to himself, his bride will never see his true color and his secret can be kept. But, it’s also true Lucilla has a horror of “dark people,” and her chief delight  upon first meeting Oscar was in hearing he was even more fair than she…

Dum, dum, dummmm……

So, things are coming along nicely until the day Oscar’s twin brother, Nugent, arrives. Nugent is an artist who’s been away in America (WHY he’s been away I won’t tell you…), and he and Oscar are very close. Lucilla’s completely jealous of Nugent’s place in Oscar’s heart, and when Nugent meets Lucilla he’s struck by her beauty.  Upon seeing her he also feels compelled to tell her companion he knows an eye specialist who may be able to restore Lucilla’s sight.

So, Oscar’s posed to marry Lucilla, and Oscar’s bright blueish/black. His epilepsy is nearly cured, and Lucilla’s none the wiser as to his “new look.” Nugent’s on the scene, ready to send away for the doctor who may or may not restore Lucilla’s sight…


That’s where I’m at in the book right now, and I really won’t spoil the plot by telling you any more than this. I’m just thrilled by the plot of this book, and though I can imagine what MAY happen, I don’t know what WILL…

Wilkiecollins_1 Here’s to William Wilkie Collins and this very satisfying read. It has me biting my nails off in consternation and nervousness. He’s seldom let me down with his books in the past, and I have a feeling this one may be one of those I’ll be recommending. I do know I can’t wait to find how all this turns out.

Drumroll, Please… Bluestalking Reader’s Top 10 Books Read in 2006

Top10 2006


Verrry difficult this year, as it is every year, but the more I looked at my list of books read in 2006 the more clear it became. Though I read a lot of really great books, the ones that stood out as stellar were really pretty obvious choices.

The books I chose as my “best of” were the ones that most likely blind-sided me by their sheer brilliance. A book that turns me inside-out, then rips out my heart for good measure, is very likely to make my Top 10 List. Also, a book that has deep, never-ending empathy, forcing me to look at things in my own life I may or may not be comfortable with thinking about but which I need to address, is a strong contender. Then there are the classics, those books that set the standard for what  a good story is, or should be. These stand the test of time, and often multiple readings, and every time I read them I find something entirely different within the very same pages (often the same edition) I’ve held in my hands before.

So, without further ado, here is:

Bluestalking Reader’s Top 10 Books Read in 2006:

(Not necessarily in order, mind…)

10.  The Barracks by John McGahern

I’d never read any McGahern before, and he completely blindsided me with his brilliance. His prose is so quiet, in some ways, yet so full of often very torturous emotion. Just a gorgeous, gorgeous book.

9. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

This was a re-read several times over for me, and every time I read it I think it more brilliant. It’s funny, frightening and wonderfully tender. Though not one of his masterpieces, it’s nevertheless a great book.

8. The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson

All the Booker-nominated reads impressed me, but this one has stayed with me the longest of all of them. Tales influenced by the Cain and Abel story tend to interest me, and this is one that’s beautifully done. Mary Lawson’s an author to watch.

7. A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard

Books that force you to look at things in a different light, and force you out of your comfort zone, do what fiction was meant to do. No light or easy read, not to mention not a comfortable one, A Lifetime Burning addresses some very controversial subject matter. Yet, Gillard finds the absolute perfect line to tread, not condoning the actions of the characters but still presenting them as fallible yet worthy human beings. A truly skillful novel, and one that deserves a much wider audience.

6. Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal

Amazing what a writer can do with sparing prose. Hrabal touched so many chords in my book-loving heart with this one.

5. The Stranger Next Door by Amelie Nothomb

Ah, Amelie! Without Dovegreyreader would I ever have found you??  Very likely not, and huge thanks go out to her for that. I loved all the Nothombs I read this year (and I read several), but this one really stood out for me. It was so grotesque and engrossing, at the same time.

4. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

Speaking of grotesque, this is quite possibly the most disturbingly brilliant book I’ve ever read. I’ve read it twice to date, and may not ever have the emotional wherewithall to read it again. It’s astonishing, and very, very dark, but the power of the prose is impressive. Definitely a modern classic.

3. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Another Booker-nominated work that I just loved. These sorts of coming-of-age tales can either be very, very good, or very, very trite and overdone. This one is in the former category.

2. TIE: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan by Claire Tomalin, England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton by Kate Williams

I love Charles Dickens, and though I’d heard the vague story of Nelly Ternan in the past I didn’t know the whole story. Tomalin took care of that quite neatly. Kate Williams likewise covers her subject with skill, and in a way so accessible and interesting I felt I was reading a novel. These two are among the very best biographies I’ve read, ever.

1. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Another re-read made my Top 10 List, but I’ll defend that by saying this is another book destined for future classic status. There’s so incredibly much in it, and like the classics I could read it endlessly and not come to the end of all of it. Brilliant stuff, and very emotionally complex.


Honorable Mention Status:

1. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

2. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

3. Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn

4. Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

5. The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeanette Walls

N.B.: For the record, everything I read by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine remains in its own special, separate category of books I read selfishly and with utter abandon, but which didn’t quite make the cut for the hallowed list. To her I tip my bonnet with humility and respect, and I’ll give her the title of the Writer Least Likely to Disappoint Me When I Need a Really Good Creepy Read. Without Rendell/Vine I don’t know how I’d fill this very vital (to me) void.

Last, but certainly not least, heartfelt thanks go out to everyone I’ve chatted with on all matters bookish, or whose blog I’ve read over the year, and to all who’ve given me such outstanding recommendations for books I simply MUST READ. You’re all completely invaluable to me, and I only wish there were some way I could mention all of you to repay your incredible kindnesses. Humble thanks to all of you, and long may we all continue to enjoy this free, open community of like-minded souls communing and sharing our thoughts and feelings on the subject nearest to our hearts…




Here’s to more of the same in 2007. Onward and upward, don’t spare the horses!

Jacket Magazine: Jagged with Love by Susanna Childress

As long as I’m on the subject of thrills, my review for Susanna Childress’s Jagged With Love is up on the Jacket Magazine site.

Jaggedwithlove_1 The downside is my bruised vanity (what’s left of it), as the photo I wound up sending them is a real reminder of how crappy the past two years have been, and how loss and anxiety have really worn on me. I know, that’s an external thing I shouldn’t obsess on, and I generally don’t, but what a wake up call when you see your face on a public web site.

If anything should send me screaming back to my former life as a health nut that should. I still vaguely recall the strict vegetarian gym rat I was before the earth tilted off its axis, but my chi ran off screaming in frustration sometime around November/December of 2004 and hasn’t been answering my calls ever since.

Ah, well, pardon my indulgence as I whine without restriction. The important thing is the review is there.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (a quickie)



The online classics bookgroup I operate for my library is reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this month. Like all the monthly reads I have scheduled through March, this one’s a re-read for me, and with every re-read I find much more in the books than I did before.

In the case of Dr. Jekyll, the edition I’m reading has a wonderful introduction by Jenny  Davidson, a professor of 18th century literature. One thing I found very striking in the intro is the fact Jack the Ripper made his first appearance very soon after the first stage play of Dr. Jekyll.  Not that there’s a connection between these two things, but imagine how Victorian society would have felt first reading the book and seeing the play about a madman with no conscience ravaging the streets, then having this play out in real life to an even greater degree.  That’s a very curious coincidence.




It also makes one wonder about the Victorian culture/society itself, and what spawned such anti-social/isolationist themes, or perhaps climate is the proper word.  Perhaps there’s something about the strict controls of society that inspired both men, one to write a classic story and the other to murder prostitutes.  Maybe.


“I have been made to learn that the doom and burden of our life is bound forever on man’s shoulders; and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure.”


Dr. Jekyll is a very short book, less than 100 pp.  I read it in the space of an evening, but will re-read it at least once, or maybe even twice, more in order to get more of the nuances. Having read Davidson’s intro I’ll have a better idea what to look for in re-reads, including Dr. Jekyll’s statements about what led him to try this experiment in the first place, as well as the background that led him to feel so isolated. Of course this dual personality is fascinating all in itself, and there’s much to be analyzed in that, but the intro also pointed out several less obvious points I’ll be looking at the next time around.

The Victorian era fascinates me, and coming back to even a short study of one aspect of it is like going home again. I’ve missed it.

Interview: David J. Walker



An interview with David J. Walker:

1. Does the writing of series novels present any special challenges, or benefits, you don’t find in stand-alone fiction? What advice would you give an aspiring writer about writing series fiction?

One challenge of a series is that the author is locked into whatever he/she has said about the characters in the past. For example, if the hero’s mother is dead in book one, she’s not around to be of service to the plot in book three. All series writers I know say that there are things they wish they hadn’t done early on because they’d like things a little different now.

A large benefit, to me at least, is that I don’t have to create a whole new set of characters for each book. When I begin a new book I already have the principal characters and know how they deal with life and with whatever problems I put in front of them. Of course, the fun thing is to have them change their approach and try something new (like get divorced, start drinking, find out their mother is not dead after all, or whatever).

Also, publishers like mysteries that come in series. I think it might be easier to break in with a series.

2. If you didn’t live in the Chicago area would you still find it a good setting for your books? What about the city appeals to you, and what qualities does it have that work well for your fiction?

I think Chicago is a great city in which to set crime novels. I can’t go into great detail on why (I’ve written whole articles on the subject), but for one thing the city already has a reputation (for gangsters and political corruption and such) that is known around the world and can be taken advantage of.

3. What writing projects are you working on currently?

I am writing on a stand-alone suspense novel that is set partially in Chicago, but involves Latin America and the CIA and attempts to bring about “regime change” in a country that is hostile to the U.S. It is so much different than the eight private eye novels I have had published that it is a challenge…but also a lot of fun.

4. Do you practice any writing rituals?

I write as early in the day as I can drag myself out of bed. As for rituals, I have recently taken to starting each session by reading some brief article about writing. Usually it’s something motivational for authors to keep me going, but sometimes something about technique. Novelists Incorporated, a national organization for published “pop fiction” authors, has a great newsletter full of inspiring things.

5. What have you been reading lately? Is there anything you’re reading now, or have read recently, that’s impressed you?

Nothing has impressed me in a long time as much as the Harry Potter books. I am also reading a lot of thrillers (which the Harry Potter books are, come to think of it). Recent favorites are: Derailed, by James Siegel, and Citizen Vince, by Jess Walter. I like stories about (more or less) ordinary people who are suddenly caught up in dangerous situations and find the often surprising capacity to survive and beat the odds.

6. Aside from writing and reading, what else do you feel passionately about?

I feel passionately that we create our own lives, that taking responsibility for our lives is a great step toward discovering happiness, and that the culture we live in tends to foster a sense of victimhood and dependence. I am a big believer in affirmations and visualizations and am not at all deterred by the fact that these techniques are often disparaged as “New Age” B.S. As far as politically and socially, I am a liberal through and through. I could go on and on, but who cares…?

7. Do you have a favorite quotation, or perhaps just a few words, you feel sums up your philosophy on life?

I have had all sorts of “sayings” that I have used at various different times in my life. Sometimes I stick them on my computer. A recent favorite is: “How I do anything is how I do everything.”

8. If you were marooned on an island, stuck in an elevator, or otherwise cut off from society, what one book would you have with you?

What book would I want on a deserted island? Maybe The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff. Or ask me next week.

9. What memories do you have, from your childhood, about your experiences in public libraries? Did they play a role at all in your love of books and reading?

My first public library was in the small country town where I grew up. It consisted of a few rooms on the first floor of what had been a farm house, and was full of children’s adventure books and biographies.. My brother and I would go there about once a week, take out as many books as they would let each person take, and then trade them with each other as we read them. I remember exactly (I think) what it looked like, felt like, smelled like (although the librarian is a blank to me).

The second one was the old main branch of the Chicago Public Library (now the “Cultural Center”). I remember it as dark and gloomy (way different than it is now) and full of strange books. At the time I was in my first couple of years of high school on Chicago’s near north side. I never had a card and never took one book out, just wandered around the place about once a month, wondering who wrote all this stuff and thinking they must be important people. (Now I’m one of them, and I know better.)

David J. Walker’s website:

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron


  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (April 8, 2008)
  • Language: English


Never mind the grammatically horrendous title (for shame!), this is one entertaining book of essays on the subject of aging, most especially as it applies to women. Whether it would be as funny to either: a). men, or b). people too young to know what aging really feels like, is debatable but I can only say I found it a very deep, thoughtful and quick read. 

It’s also one that kept me laughing, that is, when I didn’t feel like crying. Ephron doesn’t sugar-coat, though she does pour on the humor. She lets out her true feelings on the topic of aging, which feels an awful lot like grief in some of her essays. That would make sense, though, to mourn the passing of youth as you’d mourn just about anything you’ve had and lost. 

Though she couches things in humor, she’s brutally honest.  She’s at her most poignant while speaking about the loss of her best friend, who died all too soon after discovering she had cancer. One day they were talking about the fickle and finite nature of life, and the next they were struggling to find a way to make sense of things, and to figure out how to say goodbye.  Really wrenching stuff, but the uplift is Ephron’s unfailing sense of humor.  The optimism of that may be real or faked, but there’s enough padding there that the reader can still come away with a feeling things aren’t SO bad, about her neck or other, bigger things like death and dying.

I had to wait a while for my crack at this book, as it’s still quite new and apparently there was a line already waiting to reserve it before I had the bright idea of doing so.  I brought it home from the library today, started reading it in the car while waiting for the kids to get out of school, and finished it just a few minutes ago, thus making my total reading time something in the neighborhood of 2.5 hours.  What an entertaining 2.5 hours they were, too. I was sorry the book was so short.

This is partly a book about fighting the aging process, but not entirely. All the creams and surgical procedures are mentioned, and Ephron will tell you what she’s done and what she hasn’t, but that isn’t the main point of the book. The point is aging isn’t a walk in the park. Not only can an aging person all but feel the world passing on to the next generation, but she must also face that along with losing some of the people she cares about. Aging means time passes, and as time passes both good and bad things happen.  You may choose to focus on the good or the bad, but ultimately aging is a struggle. It’s a struggle physically, mentally and emotionally, and that’s all there is to it.

Interview: Wendy K. Harris



” I don’t spend all my time wandering the beaches and gazing out to sea – although that was my vision when I moved to the Isle of Wight in 2003. Sometimes I wonder how I ended up here. It wasn’t part of the grand plan which was, in fact, to have no plan at all. ”

How has the experience of publishing The Sorrow Of Sisters surprised you?

I think I have been most surprised by the strength of my own emotions. Getting published was almost unintentional. I was prompted by fellow writers and my daughter, and I thought I might as well give it a go. I’d read so many accounts of writers papering walls with their rejection slips that I had no real expectations. Tentatively, I sent a few chapters to a literary advisory service and received positive feedback and the names of three agents to try. The second one signed me up and that’s when the possibility of being published arose and the thrill of it hit me like a sledgehammer. I don’t think I’ve been quite the same since!

What about the experience has stood out from your other writing endeavours?

The exhilaration of holding the first bound copy in my hands – even though it was the German edition and I couldn’t read it! The other aspect is the vulnerability. For me, writing a novel is a bit like gestating a baby – it’s a private and intimate experience and then suddenly it’s out there for the world to pick up, consider and form an opinion. Fortunately the feedback has been wonderful. But what if everybody hated it? I think I would have to go into exile.

What projects are you working on currently?

I am working on a ‘treatment’ for The Sorrow Of Sisters. This is like a synopsis but written as the first stage of a film script. I have just received an offer from my German publisher for the second ‘Undercliff Novel’ the title of which is Blue Slipper Bay, and I am also twenty thousand words into the third – Winds That Blow Lonely.

Do you practice any writing rituals?

I need to have a clear, quiet mind before I start writing. I achieve this by dealing with any pressing external chores first so they don’t nag at me. Then I go into my writing room with a sense of the sacred. I light incense or a candle, maybe play a chant, and sit quietly for a while. I know that my best creativity lies beneath the turmoil of my ego. I can’t always reach it but I give it a chance. Writing a journal also helps clear the junk from the path. When I am ready I just start – maybe with pencil and pad or sometimes straight onto laptop. And I can go at it for hours!

What have you been reading lately? Is there anything you’re reading now, or have read recently, that’s impressed you?

Precious Bane

by Mary Webb – the chosen book for my local reading group. It was first published in 1924 and is set in rural Shropshire. I usually go for contemporary fiction but this old-fashioned tale stunned me with its beauty and poignancy. It is the story of a young woman with a hare-lip, the superstition that surrounded her at the time, and her extraordinary affinity with the natural world which nurtured her generous soul.

Aside from writing and reading, what else do you feel passionately about?

People aside – The Undercliff of the Isle of Wight, where I live. It abounds with history and wildlife and stories – told, untold and imagined. It is a rugged but fragile area where humans try to control land and sea, which of course have their own agenda. And then there’s my eternal quest for the invisible dimension of life which upholds and makes sense of the visible.

Do you have a favourite quotation, or perhaps just a few words, you feel sums up your philosophy on life??

Be Still And Know – not in an intellectual or religious way but in a ‘time to stand and stare’ way. Thoughts have a tendency to preoccupy my mind with the future and the past. Taking a deep breath and feeling deeply into this moment brings me back to an awareness of the actual experience of living.

If you were marooned on an island, stuck in an elevator, or otherwise cut off from society, what one book would you want to have with you?

This is a very difficult question for an avid, eclectic reader who seldom reads the same book twice! It would have to be big and complex to maybe last a long time. Classically, I’d choose Dickens – Bleak House. Spiritually –

A Course In Miracles or Eckhart Tolle – The Power Of Now. Contemporary fiction would be Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible. But if I must choose only one – and given that I feel all life is a quest for fulfilment in some shape or form – I would go for Tolkein – The Lord of The Rings – especially since seeing the wonderful films and the New Zealand landscape which I love.

What memories do you have from your childhood, about your experiences in public libraries? Did they play a role at all in your love of books and reading?

Wonderful! My local library was an old monastery in the middle of what became a public park. I can still hear the creak of the gnarled oak doors and smell the musty books. The silence was tangible and the gloom intense. And all those shelves were stacked with promises of magical experiences. I had little cardboard tickets and, oh, the joy when I was old enough to graduate from the junior to adult sections and enter through the grown-up door! Definitely the start of my addiction.

The Sorrow of Sisters by Wendy K. Harris


  • Series: Transita
  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: TRANSITA LIMITED (March 10, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1905175264
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905175260

From The Sorrow of Sisters by Wendy K. Harris:

” I was born here – the phrase kept repeating itself in my mind.  I felt friendly towards it, an old-fashioned town, a hotchpotch of preserved Victorian grandeur, some renovation needed – some demolition even.  There was a hut on the beach selling today’s catch of crabs and lobsters, a digger further along heaving boulders for a small harbour.  It had none of the chic of the Mediterranean resorts which I favoured, but there was something comforting about it, like putting on saggy tracksuit bottoms and slippers after a day spent in a tight skirt and high heels.  … It might have been nice to grow up at the seaside. But then my life would have taken a different course.”


The books I choose in the cooler months don’t always tend to be any different in genre or “weight” than those I choose in the warmer months, but it seems particularly satisfying, once there’s a bit of bite in the air, to curl up with a nice, densely plotted saga sort of novel you can completely sink into.  The Sorrow of Sisters is precisely this sort of book.

Harris’s book features lush, sensual language that seems to evoke the Isle of Wight very clearly. Not having been to the island personally, I feel I can now imagine what it must be like to visit there. The imagery in this book was so vibrant and real I found myself caught up in the sights, sounds and even smells of the island, as illustrated by the many passages like the one featured above.

The book begins with a series fragmentary scenes. Before you know all the characters and have them straight in your head scenes come at you in what almost seems a random order.  The feeling is a bit disconcerting at first, but it doesn’t take long before things come into much sharper focus. It’s at this point the book really takes off, moving forward in a smooth, if not completely linear fashion.  It’s also at this point you begin to realize more about what was happening earlier in the book. I went back to re-read a few passages, to get things straight in my head, and I believe that really paid off as far as my continued enjoyment of the book.

Flashbacks are used in the story to great effect, allowing the reader to get the background history on the characters and the story while at the same time hurtling forward with the characters.  This adds to the rich, multi-layered quality of the book.  Without the backstory the novel itself wouldn’t be nearly as compelling as it is, and the method Harris employs is completely inspired. This works so well I can’t imagine a better way of approaching the writing of this book.

The plot of the novel concerns the lives three women, 49-year old Jane, a married woman with no children who’s occupied in nursing her dying father; Lillian, who has passed away by the time the main plot begins, but whose deeply intimate relationship with Emmeline is key to the book; and Emmeline herself, who survives to relate the whole tale to Jane.

Lillian and Emmeline are native to the Isle of Wight, and their sections take place there. It’s only when Jane receives notice she’s inherited a cottage on the island that she ventures there herself, and from that point on revelations about her past begin slowly unwinding as she learns more about her own ties to this land.

Surrounding these women are the men in their lives, 85-year old Henry, who’s Jane’s father and also the brother of Emmeline; Chas, who’s married to Jane; and, finally, Neptune and Woody, homosexual partners ostracized from the island community, a situation that leads them to withdraw somewhat from the world, becoming very close to Lillian and Emmeline. Neptune and Woody enjoy comfort and friendship with these two women they can’t find anywhere else, and as a result a very closely-knit friendship develops.

The many twists and turns of plot are extremely satisfying, but the fact is revealing too much about them reveals too much about the book, as well, potentially spoiling the plot for those who’ve yet to read it.  The book really revolves around the revelations Emmeline gives to Jane, both about the truth of her own life and also the truth of Jane’s. Each revelation digs deeper and deeper, until ultimately Jane is sent reeling, having to decide whether she’s strong enough to commit to helping Emmeline or if her loyalty to her father is greater. Her decision reflects her great strength of character, even in the face of some very difficult truths. 

The ending of the book is as tumultuous as you would expect, given the kinetic, dynamic nature of the tale. This book reminds me of a cross between Wuthering Heights and the fiction of Sarah Waters. It has all the intensity of Bronte’s work, coupled with the gorgeous prose and deep humanism of Sarah Waters.

This is a highly emotional book, fraught with both the best and worst of humanity.  By turns it crushes and then redeems, ultimately finding light and hope, after the storm has cleared. 

Interview: Robert Hill


robert hill


LG: How has the experience of publishing When All is Said and Done surprised you? What about the experience has stood out from your other writing endeavors?

RH: The biggest surprise to me was that I wrote something others found worthy of publishing! I honestly didn’t know if I could do it. For the past 25 years I’ve been writing mostly advertising copy for movies and, for the past three or so years, grants for non-profit organizations. I had not sat down to any creative writing, any “me” writing, for many years. Not since college, really. Yet, all through the years, I never missed an opportunity to grumble to myself “I should be writing a novel.” When I was 43, some friends staged a creative intervention. They urged me to join a local weekend writing workshop led by Tom Spanbauer, (The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon). It was a put up or shut up challenge. It worked.

For advertising, you practice the art of brevity. More often than not, you’re reduced to writing the three-word headline, the 25-word copy block. Writing the novel, I didn’t have those constraints. I could do anything I wanted. Anything. It was a totally liberating experience. As a result, in what may seem like a rebellion against all things terse, the opening sentence to When All is Said and Done is close to four-pages long. You might say it was my declaration of independence, or, at least, my declaration of independent clauses.

LG: What writing projects are you working on currently?

RH: I’m at work on a new novel. Many shifting points of view. Many characters, all of whom are extremely elderly. I’m having fun with the language.

LG: Do you practice any writing rituals?

RH: My most practiced writing ritual, unfortunately, is procrastination. I’ll circle the keyboard for hours, sometimes days, before my fingers come in for a landing. I don’t write every day at a set time for a set length of time. I work in bursts, and once in them, I’m committed for the long haul. I’ll keep working until I’ve reached the other side of whatever “arc” I’m creating. That could be two hours of twelve. I don’t recommend this system for everyone. But it works for me.

LG: What have you been reading lately? Is there anything you’re reading now, or have read recently, that’s impressed you?

RH: Books I’ve recently read and loved: Percival Everett’s God’s Country; The Last Flight of Jose Luis Balboa, a short story collection by Gonzalo Barr, Tom Spanbauer’s new novel, Now is the Hour; and for overall lasting stunning-ness, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

LG: Aside from writing and reading, what else do you feel passionate about?

RH: Of equal weight: foster care, global warming, the disappearing middle class, the grotesque rampage of corporate profits that hides behind the American Flag, historic preservation.

LG: Do you have a favorite quotation, or perhaps just a few words, you feel sums up your philosophy on life?

RH: For life in general: the Golden Rule. For writing: never write “down.” Treat readers with respect.

LG: If you were marooned on an island, stuck in an elevator, or otherwise cut off from society, what one book would you have with you?

RH: I’m fairly practical. On a deserted island, I’d hope to have any survival guide that lists the basic instructions for fire, shelter and food. In a stalled elevator, I’d want something titled The Art of Staying Calm or the equivalent. For any other situation where I’d be cut off from society, I suppose the Bible would be good. I’m not particularly religious, but it does have some pretty good stories in it. The Oxford Dictionary would be a welcome companion, too.

Thank you, Robert Hill, for a lovely interview.