Interview: Lewis Buzbee

lewisbuzbee

 

LG: How has the experience of publishing The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop surprised you? What about the experience has stood out from your other writing endeavors?

LB: It has been a lovely surprise all the way around, to find so many readers–booksellers, librarians, and civilians–so passionate about the bookstore. I’ve always knowns this, from my first bookselling days on, but to see it fleshed out like this, well, it’s great. Not for me necessarily (though it has been that, too), but for the bookstore. I’m not nearly as pessimistic about the future of the bookstore as others, and the reaction has been heartening.

One of the great delights of all of this is meeting these folks in person, at trade shows and in bookstores. I’ve been out of the business for 12 years–I’m a teacher these days, at the University of San Francisco’s MFA program–and so I’m seeing old bookstore friends, sales rep friends, old customers. And meeting new friends, too, booksellers and librarians and those merely besotted with booklust. Terrific. It feels oddly like home.

LG: What writing projects are you working on currently?

LB: Right now I’m working on a series of kids’ chapter books, JoJo Pearlwhite’s Mix and Match Adventures, for readers 6-9. It’s always been my hope to write kids’ books, and the moment seems right. We’re just sending those round to publishers now. Part of my desire to do this comes from having an 8 year-old daughter, Maddy, and the immersion in kids’ books that comes with her. But as a bookseller for so long, kids’ books have always been a part of my adult life, a compulsion. And it’s been a gas writing these.

LG: Do you practice any writing rituals?

LB: Well, with an 8 year-old, rituals get a little suspended. My ritual is to write when I possibly can. Usually when Maddy’s at school, and I’ve the time. It’s catch as catch can. The ritual that’s replaced the regular time-slot for writing is that since Maddy’s been born, I write in long hand again–at least for the first drafts–which I used to do all the time, of course, before computers. It was a wonderful return, writing with a pen again. The slowness and quiet of it, the commitment one makes to a sentence, the scratch and smooth of the paper.

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

LB: As you know, people like us are always reading and always reading too much. So much. And isn’t that a lovely feeling, that one never runs out of great, and I mean truly great books to read. I re-read a lot these days, books from an earlier time in my life I find it compelling to revisit. I’ve just re-read James Agee’s A Death in the Family, after a twenty year hiatus. What a beautiful, wondrous book that it. The writing is exceptional, and there’s something about the quiet of the times he writes of, 1915. Entrancing.

But the exciting new find is a book I’m about halfway through right now, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, a young Australian writer. This is billed as a young adult novel, but like the best young adult novels, it’s as sophisticated and thrilling as any “adult” novel. The narrator here is Death, who tells the story of a young girl in WWII Germany. It’s sweet and harrowing, absolutely unflinching, and the writing is exceptional, completely unique. A true discovery for me.

One of the great developments in recent years in publishing is the breakdown of the barrier between children’s literature and adult. Harry Potter, of course, helped that along. But Philip Pullman’s novels, too, and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, and Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, and many others.

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

LB: My daugher, of course, family life. That’s where I live now, and most of my recent fiction’s been about that. I’ve also just published a new book of stories, After the Gold Rush, and they’re all centered on this. But music, too. I play bass–badly–with some musician friends now and then, and there’s nothing better than playing music with friends.

Family, friends, that pretty much takes up the space in a day. And what a way to take up one’s time. 
LG: Do you have a favorite quotation, or perhaps just a few words, you feel sums up your philosophy on life?

LB: Ach. Such a hard question. I’m more of an Aristotle than a Plato. I don’t think I’m smart enough, or sure enough, to have a philosophy. In fact, it seems that so many of the problems we have in the world today come from philosophies, this one or that one, and the people who carry those philosophies and try to impose them on everyone else.

But a question that made me think. So, not a philosophy, but a stance rather, an attitude. Italo Calvino said the he was a pessimist of the mind and an optimist of the soul. I try to keep that in mind. A balance of engagment and observation. Or as the Canadian musician Jane Sibbery sings, “half eagle, half angel.”

Oh, and one should always be as polite as possible. That helps.

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

LB: Oh, I want a clever answer here. But honestly, the one book that comes to mind is The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 1. From Beowulf through Shakespeare. And preferably the one I had–and still own–in my sophomore year in college. It’s all beat up, taped together in places. But that would last me.

LG: 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?

LB: I was visiting my mother in San Jose recently, and happened to drive by the public library I’d used as a child, the local branch. It was gone, razed. I couldn’t believe it, shocked. Then I saw that construction was going on and that they were building a new branch, a much bigger one. I was saddened to see the old one go, but thrilled to think there’d be a new one.

Perhaps my most vivid memory of a childhood library is of the very tiny one at my junior high school in San Jose, where one late, dusty afternoon, the librarian introduced me to a wonderful little book called the Teddy Bear Habit, by James Lincoln Collier. It’s one of those important memories that just attacks you now and then; I’ll be walking along, and boom, something in the shade of light or the particular quality of a hushed moment will strike me, and I’m back there. We can never underestimate the importance of libraries in the literacy of our culture. I mean, just imagine this, after centuries of books being owned and read by only the most wealthy, here come public libraries. Every book is yours, and for free. That’s progress.

 

From The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop:

“It’s not as if I don’t have anything to read; there’s a tower of perfectly good unread books next to my bed, not to mention the shelves of books in the living room I’ve been meaning to reread. I find myself, maddeningly, hungry for the next one, as yet unknown. I no longer try to analyze this hunger; I capitulated long ago to the book lust that’s afflicted me most of my life. I know enough about the course of the disease to know I’ll discover something soon.”

 

Booker Break: Mark Haddon – A Spot of Bother

 aspotofbother

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (August 14, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307278867
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307278869

If he were given the choice he would rather someone had broken his leg. You did not have to explain what was wrong with a broken leg.  Nor were you expected to mend it by force of will.

– A Spot of Bother

 

 

What he felt mostly was a relentless, grinding dread which rumbled and thundered and made the world dark, like those spaceships in science-fiction films whose battle-scorched fuselages slid onto the screen and kept on sliding onto the screen because they were, in fact, several thousand times larger than you expected when all you could see was the nose cone.

The idea of genuinely having cancer was beginning to seem almost a relief, the idea of going into hospital, having tubes put into his arm, being told what to do by doctors and nurses, no longer having to grapple with the problem of getting through the next five minutes.”

Mark Haddon’s follow up novel to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time is another sort of exploration into the darker, more obscure regions of the human mind.  Instead of an adolescent main character with Asperger’s Syndrome, in A Spot of Bother Haddon portrays a 61-year old who begins to think he’s losing his mind shortly after finding a mysterious skin lesion on his hip.

George Hall is convinced he has cancer, and that there’s nothing that can be done for  him. He’s plunged into a dark, confusing sort of despair in which the world seems to wobble on its axis, throwing life as he knew it into an alternate nightmarish dimension.  Fear overtakes him, often crippling him, and he begins having panic attacks he believes are a further proof of the cancer he’s convinced himself is ravaging him.

Meanwhile, his daughter is planning her second marriage to a man he and his wife disapprove of. His wife is having an affair with a former colleague of his, and his homosexual son lurks like an unsolved problem in the background.

George Hall is falling apart.

Mark Haddon’s second novel is stellar. It’s at times riotously funny, deeply empathetic and peopled with characters the reader comes to identify with so closely it’s not surprising to find yourself actually worrying about them.  Well, at least I hope it’s not surprising to find yourself worrying about fictional characters!  Perhaps I’ve just hit on fodder for Mark Haddon’s third novel, devoted to the notion that readers can actually come to care so much for fictional characters they build a delusional world around them.

All royalty checks accepted, Mr. Haddon.

A Spot of Bother is a book not to be missed.  Thanks so much to Doubleday for sending me a review copy of this book.

Booker Book: Kate Grenville – The Secret River

secretriver

  • Paperback: 334 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate U.S.; First Trade Paper Edition edition (April 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841959146
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841959146

Just put me out of my misery and hand Kate Grenville her Booker Prize now, please.

Though the other Longlisters I’ve read have been fantastic, some almost stratospherically so, I would call The Secret River approaching a masterpiece of contemporary fiction.  This is the story of William Thornhill, a man transported to Australia for a crime he merely intended and never managed to carry out.  His wife, Sal, and their children are transported with him, and it’s a minor miracle he didn’t wind up swinging from the end of a rope, instead.

Australia is presented as a forbidding, harsh place, but also a land of opportunity. Thornhill puts his nose to the grindstone, determined to see his way to buying a pardon, and then sets his sights on settling the wild land. They begin scratching out a farm in hostile land, constantly under threat from the very forbidding aborigines.  Facing hardship, intense weather, sickness and constant setbacks, they hope to prevail and make their fortune. Sal hopes to return to England one day, and pins all her hopes on it.  Her husband sees a very different reality, and hopes she can reconcile herself to the fact they’ll never see their homeland again.

Kate Grenville is a brilliant writer. I’d say she reminds me of a modern day, Australian version of George Eliot. Her prose is dense and lush as well as lyrical, and her themes universal and humanistic.  She presents the story without judgment, setting down the very brutal reality of the situation without presenting anyone as complete hero or villain.  It’s a very fair and balanced portrayal of the struggle between the white settlers and the black aboriginals, portrayed warts and all. No one is condemned, and no one given amnesty. There are no innocents here, but neither is there a single guilty party.  All fare equally in Grenville’s treatment, illustrating how incredibly powerful she truly is.

It’s hard to see how any other book can be deserving of the Booker after having read The Secret River.  It’s a rare book that achieves the heights this one does, and if I find any of the others as deserving I’ll be surprised.

 

Booker Book #4: M.J. Hyland – Carry Me Down

carrymedown

 

Carry Me Down leaves you with a lump in the throat after  you’ve closed the cover.  It’s such an authentic portrait of what it is to be a lonely adolescent who’s an awkward misfit, though thankfully not every lonely adolescent tries to smother his mother.

The focus of this book is on the brutality of childhood, as well as the huge impact parents play in forming the psyches of their children.  Though not an abused child per se, John Egan is raised by somewhat unstable parents who don’t always provide him with the emotional and financial stability he so desperately needs.  He  becomes a compulsive liar who’s convinced he has a preternatural ability to detect lies in others, and as such he’s somewhat an unreliable narrator.  The reader can read between the lines and get a good general idea of the truth, by knowing the reactions of the other characters, so the occasional delusions of John are easily seen through. He is a liar, but not a sophisticated one.  There’s a lot of innocence in him, through it all, and this is what gets our sympathy. He’s a child who needs a lot of love and who gets precious little, and that’s what breaks the reader’s heart more than anything.

After finishing this book last evening I cannot get it out of my head.  It’s dark and sometimes depressing, but in the end redemptive.  No wonder the Booker committee chose it.  It illustrates a very good instinct for picking out another up-and-comer to watch. 

I expect Hyland may not have the visibility to actually win the prize, but this is one of the most heart-rending books I’ve read in a while, and it definitely deserves making the Longlist. It’s so worth making the effort to fit this one into your reading schedule.

In other Booker news, at the half – 3/4 point in Grenville’s The Secret River. It’s still fabulous, staggeringly so, and I know I’ll be torn when making my official final prediction for the prize after I’ve finished this one.

They’re all just so dratted good!

Interview and Review: Linda Gillard, A Lifetime Burning

Linda Gillard’s A Lifetime Burning: Author interview & book review

” Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.”

– T.S. Eliot, from “East Coker” (from Four Quartets)

linda gillard

An interview with Linda Gillard, author of A Lifetime Burning and Emotional Geology, published by Transita.

1). How has the experience of publishing ALB surprised you? What about the experience has stood out from your other writing endeavors?

I had no idea I’d written a good book. I hoped I had, but I wasn’t sure. Reader reaction and reviews have astonished me, exceeding my wildest dreams. I’ve also been surprised by the warm response from male readers. I don’t think I write for a female readership (I’m certainly far more interested in writing about male characters than female for some reason) but my publisher Transita produces contemporary fiction aimed at mature women and that’s how my books have been marketed. I also had no idea how upset some people would be by ALB. An Oxford book group almost came to blows over it and one woman stormed out leaving the group in disarray. I didn’t realise mere fiction could provoke such strong reactions.

One way ALB has been different from the experience of EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, my first novel, is that although both books are issue-driven, I’ve been unable to promote ALB because of its byzantine plot! EG was a book about the relationship between mental illness and creativity and it was upfront about that. On the surface ALB is a “family drama” but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface but I don’t talk or write about it because it would spoil some of the plot’s jaw-dropping (I hope) revelations. If pushed, I say ALB is a book about compassion and tortuous moral dilemmas, how much damage you can do by trying to do The Right Thing. Whilst this is a fair summary, it’s not going to make copies leap off the shelves! So whereas I could actively target-market EG to interested parties I am very much dependent on word-of-mouth, in particular book group support, to get ALB better known in an overcrowded marketplace.

I think I’ve learned a lot about the marketing of books from the experience of publishing ALB but I don’t think it will affect what or how I write in future. I just write for myself and for the people who enjoy my books. I don’t do it to get rich or famous. (Which is probably just as well.)

2) What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’m now working on my 3rd novel. It’s set on Skye and in Edinburgh and once again the female protagonist is middle-aged. I’m at that stage (25k words) where I wonder if it’s going to become a real book or be an abandoned, half-formed manuscript that never really takes off. It could go either way. I’m trying to write something shorter and lighter than ALB, which was a demanding, at times gruelling book to write. It was also very complex (58 years of an extended family’s life were covered in a non-linear narrative) so this time I’m trying to be simpler but the truth is, I like complex, I like ambitious, so I doubt this one will stay short and sweet.

3) Do you practice any writing rituals?

Not really. I don’t have a problem with writer’s block or the terror of the blank screen. I don’t have a daily routine, I just write when I want to write. If I’m well into a book the problem is pacing myself so that I don’t become mentally and physically exhausted. In the final stages of writing a draft I’m quite happy to skip meals. I’ll happily work from 8.00am till midnight with a few breaks if it’s going well. I wouldn’t recommend this as a work method – you get too tired to appraise your work – but I do find it necessary to disappear, almost completely, into the world of the book. I do get obsessive and my characters seem to me at least as real as my family – possibly more so! I noticed that when I was writing about the pianist Rory in ALB who is left-handed, I ended up doing things left-handedly myself, so powerful was my identification with him.

I think my only foible is that I have to use a certain type of disposable propelling pencil. (I write longhand on lined paper for my first draft.) I buy them in packets of 6. I’ve often wondered if my writing career would grind to a halt if they stopped making these pencils.

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

I’m always re-reading Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles – that’s just an endless cycle and I think I’d better be buried with one of my 3 complete sets. (Different editions.)

I usually have a novel on the go by a writing friend or acquaintance. At the moment I’m reading Adele Geras’ young adult read, ITHAKA as she sent me a copy. I’ve also read 3 novels this year by prolific fellow Transita author, Adrienne Dines, a versatile Irish writer who I think is going places. I read her SOFT VOICES WHISPERING in manuscript and found it compelling and beautifully written.

I read non-fiction for research purposes. Recent reads have been popular science: THE REVENGE OF GAIA by James Lovelock, THE SENSE OF BEING STARED AT by Rupert Sheldrake and UNWEAVING THE RAINBOW by Richard Dawkins. But the book that has impressed me most recently (apart from Dunnett) is Stephen Kuusisto’s PLANET OF THE BLIND, about the experience of being blind. The writing is quite wonderful.

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

1. Global warming (which I refuse to call “climate change”.) The globe is warming. Period.
2. Education, particularly arts education (provision for which is lamentable in the UK.)
3. Music of all kinds. I was on a piano kick writing ALB but now I’m back on opera.
4. The Scottish Highlands. I live on the Isle of Skye. Every so often I have to go south to see my family or for work purposes. By the time I’ve got as far as Edinburgh, I’m already pining for the North again and counting the hours till I get home.
5. Mental health issues. A year after EG was published I’m still trying to raise awareness of the stigma attached to mental illness and promote understanding of the issues.

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

I’m tempted to quote chunks of HAMLET which has always been something of a vade mecum, but instead I think I’ll give you a quotation from Louise DeSalvo’s WRITING AS A WAY OF HEALING which got me writing again after a break of many years during which I’d been a teacher. “If you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

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

Without a moment’s hesitation I can say The Lymond Chronicles by the Scottish historical novelist, Dorothy Dunnett but that’s actually 6 books, which form a series. As they don’t exist in one volume I’ll settle for the final book, CHECKMATE, which is the best and the longest.

8) 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?

Although my local library (in Dartford, Kent, England) seemed to me a sombre, rather forbidding place, silent and not at all child-friendly compared to its modern equivalent, I remember feeling transported to a magical world. There was a lot of dark, polished wood and 2 turnstiles. You went in by one door and out by another and I always wondered why this was. I remember too that people’s shoes squeaked on the floor – that’s how quiet it was.

I suppose excitement is the feeling I associate with that library and that excitement was to do with choice. I had never seen so many books before. I didn’t know that many books existed! I lived in a town with a very small bookshop, which we never visited. (We were not well off and I had few books when I was young. My mother used to buy us comics and my father bound them into books and covered them with plain brown parcel paper.)

I remember feeling overwhelmed by the choice of books in the children’s section of the library. (This was the 1950s. What on earth would I have felt if there had been the variety and quantity of children’s books now available?) I remember too the pleasure I got from the physical experience of books: their smell; the variety of colours on the shelves; the feel of big, heavy books in my hands; the sound of crisp pages turning.

I had an unfortunate friend who wasn’t allowed to visit the library because her mother said you could catch diseases from dirty library books. I was shocked by this piece of information. I remember considering it, then deciding I didn’t care. I was a reckless book addict from an early age!

Thanks very much to Linda for so kindly taking the time to answer my questions. Following is my review of her recent book A Lifetime Burning:

lifetimeburning

A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard

I truly enjoyed Gillard’s first book Emotional Geology, and thought it so beautifully lyrical in style I read it very slowly, to savor every word. If it had a flaw I’d say it was the graphic, raw nature of both the sex and the language of the main character. It’s not that I’m a prude that way. Not at all, but I’m just not one for overly graphic language or sex scenes in general. A personal call, and there you have it. But the rest of that book was so lovely, and the story so wonderful, the bit about the graphic nature didn’t mar my enjoyment. Her latest, though, A Lifetime Burning, is brilliant in every way, start to finish.

What’s somewhat surprising about that is the fact the premise of this book hinges on what could only be termed rampant incest within the family, which is the focus of the plot. There are multiple incestuous layers, which you’d think I’d find more disturbing considering my minor criticism of Gillard’s first book, but the simple fact is this book is so wonderfully written as to present the reader with a completely non-judgmental exploration of what is love, and what should the limits be when pursuing something you believe to be “the real thing.” I found myself forgetting the taboo nature of the love, so wrapped up I was in the beauty of the raw need and complete, encompassing love between the characters. The fact it was incest was, of course, disturbing, but Gillard manages to work her way beyond that, finding just the right perspective that made the reader feel less uncomfortable, though just aware enough to see there was a horrible element to it. In short, the book is masterful and shows a huge leap of sophistication from Emotional Geology, which was at the same time one of the most outstanding first novels I believe I’ve ever read.

A Lifetime Burning is just unearthly beautiful in terms of prose style and lyrical quality. The language is gorgeous and lush, and if the author falters anywhere it’s at that hideously difficult three-quarters mark, building up to the climax, when so very many writers seem to have a difficult time filling the space. But even there, when the plot slows down a bit, my interest never actually flagged. I noted the bit slower pace of things, the slight slowing of the prose, but just as soon as I had the chance to notice it was happening things took off at a brilliant clip again, never to slow down again so much as a hair.

I will be recommending this book to everyone I know who enjoys reading contemporary literary fiction. I found it tremendously moving, and even the day after finishing it I continue to find it positively haunting. I will temper my recommendation to others by adding a caveat about the theme, as the issues raised could be very painful to some, but there will be no strong warning. It’s simply not needed, given the deft way Gillard handles the subject. The sheer beauty of this book is its biggest recommendation, and this book deserves a wide readership. I’ll be waiting very anxiously for Gillard’s next offering.

When All is Said and Done by Robert Hill

whenallissaidanddone

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press (January 22, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555974945
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555974947

Cole Porter never wrote songs for couples like us. Couples who have children and dogs and freezers rusting in the garage and problems that can’t be solved la-dee-da, like it was just one of those things.

When All is Said and Done

 

All first novels should be this perfect.  How refreshing not to read a self-conscious first effort by a new novelist.  This is an example of a writer bursting out of the starting gate with a very sophisicated effort.  No birth pangs at all for Robert Hill, or if he had them they certainly don’t show.

This is an impressive novel dealing with what would normally be seen as a distinctly unromantic plot, that is an examination of a longtime married couple with children and all that goes into holding such a relationship together.  This particular story deals with a Jewish couple living in New York City, until they decide to leave the rat race and move out to more rural Connecticut. The high-powered executive in this family isn’t the husband, Dan, but the wife, Myrmy. And this is 1950’s/1960’s America.  Very unconventional, and the fact that Myrmy is the breadwinner opens up all sorts of other related issues the couple must deal with, especially after a bout of pneumonia leaves her too weak and ill to work for a long period of time. 

This isn’t a sexy, exciting novel. It’s a novel about the long haul of marriage.  That in itself may not be singular, but the very high quality of the prose is.  Robert Hill writes in a style that verges on stream-of-consciousness, yet is never self-consciously literary. Never does the reader feel the need to struggle to understand what’s happening in this book. It’s all crystal clear, yet the style manages to achieve such an impressively high literary standard.  Truly amazing in a new author, and if Hill continues to write this well I anticipate him potentially becoming a real force to be reckoned with.

Very, very impressive, and worth taking a brief break from my Booker Project to read.

 

 

Irene Nemirovsky and John McGahern

 

suitefrancaise

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; Tra edition (April 11, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400044731
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400044733

The story behind the publication of Suite Française is exceptional.  Author Irene Nemirovsky was a Jewish woman living in France at the time of World War II.  Already a respected author, she had a premonition the end was near.  As the Nazis marched into France, and the French rolled over for them, she knew her days were numbered. But still she worked, writing for hours everyday, sometimes cycling for miles to find the perfect isolated spot in which to work on her novel.

As it turned out, she was right to feel paranoid. The knock on her door did come, and she was taken to Auschwitz, where she died of disease just a month later.

The manuscript of Suite Française wasn’t published until 60 years following Nemirovsky’s death.  In the possession of one of her daughters, it wasn’t delivered to publishers until the woman became an editor at a publishing house.

Even without the back story, the book is beautiful.  It captures the time of World War II in France in such vivid detail it’s like a film rather than a novel. Everything from fear to greed to patriotism is represented, from the time the war begins to its end.  Bombs drop on railroad depots, people are killed and mangled, and mothers desperately run with their children in an attempt to get away from the carnage to find safety.  Food becomes so scarce people do violence to each other in order to get what scraps they can.  Perhaps most disturbingly of all, a group of orphans loses all grip on humanity, murdering and stealing with what can only be described as a manic glee.  Suite Française is a microcosm of the war from the perspective of those who lived it.

 

barracksmcgahern

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (December 30, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142004251
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142004258

From France to Ireland, the late John McGahern wrote incredibly poetic and beautiful novels set in his native country.  The Barracks is about a middle-aged woman named Elizabeth Reegan who marries a widowed man with three children.  A frustrated police officer with dreams of buying his own farm, and fulfilling the legacy of the Reegans, her husband is a man all but oblivious to Elizabeth and her needs.  Already a widower, when he learns Elizabeth has breast cancer he can hardly bring himself to face the reality.  When his first wife died his only thought was what a horror it was seeing her in the morgue.  Any feelings of love or support are simply beyond him, leaving Elizabeth to deal with mortality on her own.

As she worsens, declining into death, Elizabeth is able to observe the family as an outsider.  Already all but a ghost, she watches them go about their daily tasks while inside she’s screaming with frustration, hoping for any bit of attention or kindness she doesn’t dare ask for.

The Barracks is a heartbreaking novel. McGahern gets inside the head of Elizabeth, expressing her plight with such empathy it’s staggering.  The prose is poetic and lyrical.  I would even say it’s flawless, and as perfect a work of fiction as I’ve ever read.

What a loss to literature, and to humanity, when McGahern died earlier this year, leaving behind him an award-winning body of fiction. There simply aren’t enough contemporary writers out there like McGahern, more’s the pity, but that’s what made him stand out like a shining light while he was alive.  Better to have written like an angel and then been lost than never to have written like an angel at all.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee

 

yellow-lightedbookshop

 

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press; Reprint edition (September 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555975100
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555975104

 

“It’s not as if I don’t have anything to read; there’s a tower of perfectly good unread books next to my bed, not to mention the shelves of books in the living room I’ve been meaning to reread. I find myself, maddeningly, hungry for the next one, as yet unknown. I no longer try to analyze this hunger; I capitulated long ago to the book lust that’s afflicted me most of my life. I know enough about the course of the disease to know I’ll discover something soon.”

– The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

This quote could have come from my own autobiography, should I decide to write it.

As someone who reads books about books compulsively, I’m always on the lookout for anything new in this genre. Often I’m disappointed by either lightweight content or lack of a really interesting style, neither of which describe this memoir. Books like this need champions to proclaim their glory. They’re little books, from the standpoint of having to battle the heavy-hitting bestsellers but huge if you are anywhere near as enamored with books as Lewis Buzbee.

This book deserves as wide an audience as it can get, but it’s largely by word of mouth that so many small press books achieve that. So, give it a read and proclaim it to all the world!

As countless other readers will likely agree, I identified with so many aspects of this book, from the author’s musing on the My Weekly Reader book orders of his grade school days through his various bookstore jobs. His wonderful side-trips into the history of the book itself made for fascinating reading, adding to what could have been a fine stand alone memoir of book lust and bookselling. Absolutely wonderful stuff, and a must for all the book-obsessed.

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal

 

tooloudasolitude

 

  • Series: Harvest in Translation
  • Paperback: 112 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (April 27, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156904586
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156904582

 

From Too Loud a Solitude :

“If I knew how to write, I’d write a book about the greatest  of man’s joys and sorrows.  It is by and from books that I’ve learned that the heavens are not humane, neither the heavens nor any man with a head on his shoulders – it’s not that men don’t wish to be humane, it just goes against common sense.”

I think I feel a new reading obsession coming on.

Bohumil Hrabal was a Czech writer who wrote with “an extremely expressive, highly visual style.” I’m not sure where I found the recommendation, but someone somewhere told me I should have a go at his Too Loud a Solitude. Luckily, I was able to track this one down via interlibrary loan as frankly book purchases lately have been just a bit out of control (mea culpa), and the bills for the next school year arrived recently.

So, to whomever recommended Hrabal, THANK YOU.

Too Loud a Solitude is about a man named Hanta whose job is to compact trash. He’s been doing this particular job for 35 years, and though it may see a completely mindless, even menial job, the glimmering light is that part of the trash he compacts contains books.  From this trash he extracts all sorts of volumes, bringing them home to add to the already huge piles of books in his home. He has books piled everywhere, even on a sagging shelf over his bed.  Hanta is enchanted by books:

“But just as a beautiful fish will occasionally sparkle in the waters of a polluted river that runs through a stretch of factories, so in the flow of old paper the spine of a rare book will occasionally shine forth, and if for a moment I turn away, dazzled, I always turn back in time to rescue it, and after wiping it off on my apron, opening it wide, and breathing in its print, I glue my eyes to the text and read out the first sentence like a Homeric prophecy; then I place it carefully among my other splendid finds in a small crate lined with the holy cards someone once dropped into my cellar by mistake with a load of prayer books, and then comes my ritual, my mass: not only do I read every one  of those books, I take each and put it in a bale, because I have a need to garnish my bales, give them my stamp…”

Though Hanta’s boss thinks him an idiot, it very quickly becomes apparent he’s anything but that:

“I have a physical sense of myself as a bale of compacted books, the seat of a tiny pilot light of karma, like the flame in a gas refrigerator, an eternal flame I feed daily with the oil of my thoughts, which come from what I unwittingly read during work in the books I am now taking home in my briefcase.  So I walk home like a burning house, like a burning stable, the light of life pouring out of the fire, fire pouring out of the dying wood, hostile sorrow lingering under the ashes.”

A beautifully written little book.

Terrorist by John Updike

terroristupdike

 Paperback: 320 pages

  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (May 29, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345493915
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345493910

 

“Charlie is asking him a question, “Would you fight them, then?”

Ahmad has missed what “them” refers to, but says “Yes” as if answering a roll call.

Charlie  appears to repeat himself, “Would you fight with your life?”

“How do you mean?”

Charlie is insistent; his brow bears down. “Would you give your life?”

The sun leans on Ahmad’s neck. “Of course,” he says, trying to lighten the exchange with a flicking gesture of his right hand. “If God wills it.”

– Terrorist

Ahmad comes from a broken home, the product of a marriage between an Egyptian man with commitment issues and an Irish-American mother who struggles to support them.  Despite his love for his mother, it’s his father who seems to hold the key to his identity. He turns to Islam as a way of reconnecting with his lost father and comes under the control of an extremist, who convinces him to join the jihad and fight the Americans with everything he has, including his own life.

Not a popular kid in school, Ahmad is pushed around a lot.   He’s bullied and taunted with the nickname “Arab,” which only fuels the fire. He decides all Americans are brutish infidels, convincing him terrorism is his one avenue of revenge.

Jack (Jacob) Levy is the high school guidance counselor with a generous heart and an unfulfilling home life.  He seeks comfort with Ahmad’s mother, a much younger woman, partly to escape the frustrating nature of his work, and partly because his own wife, Beth, has grown so fat they no longer have any intimacy between them.  Because he is around Ahmad’s home so often, Jack becomes suspicious something’s up. He has a feeling Ahmad’s headed down a path to destruction and he’s desperate to make sure that doesn’t happen.

It’s an interesting irony that Updike chose a Jewish character for this role, considering the enmity between the two cultures. Jack is a lapsed Jew, having lost his faith long ago.  How different he is from Ahmad, who is trying so desperately to hold onto his own faith, to follow the “Straight Path,” despite all the temptations of modern American life. Yet, Jack feels such a connection to the boy.  He can’t just sit back and watch him ruin his life; he knows what potential Ahmad has.

On the whole, Terrorist is a tepid book.  Updike’s intent was to get inside the head of a Muslim-American young man, to show the conflict between enjoying the freedom and comforts of American life while, at the same time, dealing with an impotent sense of rage at what’s happening to the Muslim people at the hands of the American military.  The problem is, it does so only halfheartedly, stopping short of pulling back the curtain to show what’s churning underneath. Terrorists and terrorism are anything but lukewarm, yet Terrorist lacks passion.

Perhaps that was Updike’s message, that many would-be terrorists are just kids, like Ahmad, who don’t feel burning hatred.  They fall under the spell of others who push them into giving their lives for a cause they don’t fully understand. They give lip service to the necessity of violence to advance their cause, but when it comes down to it they don’t fully understand any of it.  Spoon-fed ideas about duty, as well as hatred of all things Western, impressionable young people can be easily led.  While we get a sense of the feelings of guilt and conflict Ahmad goes through, somehow the book just misses emotionally connecting with the reader.

The book simply didn’t make the impact it could have, disappointingly. For such an iconic writer, it’s surprising Updike fell so short of the mark. Whatever the reason, Terrorist was far from the book it could have been.