Reading 2016: The best of the best


Photo credit: Huffington Post

Photo credit: Huffington Post


For all that 2016 was a shite year in general, reading-wise it was actually pretty great. Though I didn’t finish as many books as I’d have liked, only 50ish, the majority were above par. Loads of top-notch writers published new books, literary award offerings were impressive, and I scored more review copies than I could possibly read.

Game, set and match.

Irvine Welsh and Robert Olen Butler were the only two writers I met, the only two author events I attended. Ah, but they were lovely.

Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler

Irving Welsh, in conversation with Jessa Crispin

Irvine Welsh, in conversation with Jessa Crispin

My modest goal is to post a brief summary of my best books of 2016, and when I say brief I’m not kidding. As always, I hope the next year finds me posting to Bluestalking much more regularly. What I lack is not material, but organizing and planning posts.

I didn’t keep perfect track of my 2016 reads. I’ve been spending the past two days trying in vain to track down what I’ve read this year, a futile and irritating endeavor that’s left me frustrated. Very few books made it to Bluestalking for review. Several made it no further than Amazon, and I haven’t even looked at Goodreads.

It is what it is. I need to bring this reading year to a close, then hitch up my trousers and vow next year will be different.

Enough blathering. Let’s get to it.


My Official, Very Best Reads of 2016, in no particular order:


2017 was my year of all things Bronte, spurred by the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth. The Bronte Cabinet is a study of the family through objects owned or relevant to them, and a fascinating exploration of their lives and the Victorian era.

  • Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s been on my reading list at least fifteen years. Outer Dark was my gateway into his works, and did not disappoint. It’s dark and troubling and lovely, one of the true novels worthy of the description “Faulkneresque.”

Katherine Mortenhoe is dying in a post-death world, and a reality television producer sees her as a cash cow. The reporter assigned to cover her last days finds himself caught between a lust for the glory of fame and human compassion. Written before the age of reality television, this novel’s prescience makes it an especially relevant novel.

Prior to a planned visit to Scotland, I wanted to research a bit more about Scottish writers. RL Stevenson is one of the giants, and this work tells the history of his family’s instrumental contributions to lighthouse technology and how they changed the landscape of Scotland.

Agostino is the story of a 13-year old boy’s budding adolescence and sexual awakening, as well as the simultaneous and horrifying realization the madonna-figure mother he adores is also a sexual being. A disturbing, beautifully written book.

  • Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

Lesser Bohemians tells the story of a virginal young Irish woman who immigrates to England, meets a very sexually experienced middle-aged actor and falls in love. Only, the course of true love does not run smooth. Their love becomes all-consuming, threatening to destroy her. This is a highly erotic  novel touched with violence, its highest merit the superior quality of its prose.

So winds up my 2016 year in reading. Far from doing it justice, at least I’ve made a stab. You’ll just have to trust me. As far as books and reading, it kicked some serious ass.

On to 2017. Wishing you all well, and hope your reading last year and next is simply magnificent.

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin



First, let me qualify: I am not a fan of historical novels based on real, high-profile figures. I haven’t had good luck with them. I chose to review this book based mostly on my great interest in the Victorian period, its literature and history. My curiosity got the better of me, my hopes raised due to the praise I’ve read about author Daisy Goodwin, and the fame she’s achieved.

It was worth a shot.

My problems with historical fiction are two-fold: first, the question of what’s historical fact and what’s been embellished to further the plot and create interest; second, the artificiality prevalent in the prose style, the inability of many writers in the genre to write in any way that doesn’t come off self-conscious, jerking me out of the story when dialogue attempts to convey historical fact in a way that’s gratingly unnatural.

It would be something like one character telling another: “As you realize, the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066…,” or “As queen of England, you know I must wear a specific crown at my coronation, and this is kept in the Tower of London. Which is in London, a bit further down the Thames. The Thames being a major route of commerce for the city.”

Of course the other character realizes this, unless he’s a complete dolt. And if he’s an idiot, how the hell did he attain a position reporting directly to the queen?

Sets my teeth on edge.

The onus is on the author to find a way to relay historical and biographical information to the reader without creating dialogue that’s stiff and obvious. It takes much more work, which is why lots of popular writers just don’t bother. The audience must not mind, popular as these books have proven. If it’s making money, it’s not worth a writer’s time sweating and toiling in order to write at a higher level, appealing to a more literary audience.

In short: it sells. Nothing more is expected of it, thus nothing more given.

Daisy Goodman’s Victoria does, unfortunately, fall prey to all the lazy  quirks inherent in historical fiction. There is a large amount of artificiality in the dialogue, as well as terribly irritating and overly-precious writing, especially when it comes to describing how Victoria interacts with her dog. She loved animals, yes. Her dog was important to her and brought her comfort in her otherwise cold and impersonal upbringing, of course. Yet, her behavior is child-like to a cringe-worthy degree, and her dog anthropomorphized as if this were a children’s novel. Her pet’s response to her is nothing short of Disneyfied, inappropriate in a work meant to be taken seriously as a novel written for adults.

Victoria was 18 years old when she ascended to the throne. At 18, young women were then, as now, adults. That she was sheltered is unsurprising, considering the precarious position of heirs apparent, yet her words and actions are those of a much younger girl. Is this truly how she acted? Maybe, but then let’s portray that without beating it to death. A bit of understatement goes a very long way, presenting her as someone immature but not someone you want to slap.

That being said, I presume Goodwin’s done her research, that the novel does inform the reader as far as important points in Victoria’s early life. For lovers of historical fiction, have at it. Enjoy. I’m sure this book will be successful and highly popular. For those with a more literary taste, take a pass.

Time after time, historical fiction leaves me cold. It’s past time I threw in the towel. I’d be much better off reading a straight biography. At least then I’d know what’s true, unless it’s hagiography, and then all bets are off. Still, I’d rather pick my way through that than struggle with books like Victoria.

Another genre struck off the list. Just as well, considering how much really good writing there is. I won’t feel the lack. In fact, I appreciate the time this frees up in my reading, and the guilt of disliking these books lifting off my shoulders.

No genre is for everyone. This one, most definitely, is not for me.

On the Reading of Books About Books



James Archer - "The Picnic" - detail

James Archer – “The Picnic” – detail

When I’m not reading books, I’m reading books about books. Ditto books about or featuring librarians, the history of books and reading, book making (not as in gambling, only because I don’t have the money because I spend it on books), book art, book cover art, paper making, and anything even remotely connected to the subject of books. Single-minded much?

Why yes. Yes, I am.

And because this is a post about books, I’ll leave notebooks and pens and Post Its and fountain pens and other paper products out of it, showing admirable restraint. Though, when I’m not reading or reading about or writing about books, I’m dreaming of stationery…


Stationery, about which I am not talking.

Stationery, about which I am not talking.


According to Goodreads, the books I’ve listed at the bottom of this post are the top 10 most popular books about books (the list goes on pages and pages, have a look). The majority are popular books, crossing into the mainstream becoming the go-to titles you see everywhere, yet it’s still surprising they’re popular because we’re constantly told no one reads anymore.

If that’s the case, why are books about books popular at all?

I thought as much.




Beyond this, there are hundreds of titles too esoteric for the loud world of popular books. I know, because I collect them and never see them beyond reviews in highly literary periodicals, or by happening upon them while browsing Amazon, or in my bookshelves. There are books about favorite books of writers both popular and literary, books about peripheral topics like the history of the circulating library and popular bestsellers, books that are lists of books so you can add more books to your reading list. Actually, they’re all that.

It’s a shame I don’t have my books in this sub-genre listed anywhere, otherwise I’d be able to pass titles along to other obsessives. Mental note: update my Goodreads library.


Recent Book News published in The New York Times


As soon as I catch sight of a forthcoming title of a book about books I run to Amazon. If it’s not yet published, it either gets pre-ordered or I throw it on my Wish List – as in I wish I had the money to buy it. Inevitably, I break down and my Buy it Now finger sends it careening out the door of Amazon’s warehouse and onto my credit card, though occasionally titles slip through and I miss them altogether.

Even the best of us.

Half Price Books is another incredible source for serendipitous finds of these little lost lambs. Born with the fore-knowledge they ‘ll wind up remaindered, books about books are destined for used/re-sell bookstores. Bad for the publishers, but very good for me.

Online, there’s also Hamilton Books. Have a look: their range is phenomenal, mostly for difficult to find books. If you’re a total nerd like me, your specialty genre is probably there. Shipping is $ 3.50 per order, 40 cents per item.



And like the dope-fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter. Books are so necessary to me that when in a railway train I have become aware that fellow-travellers have come away without a single one I have been seized with a veritable dismay. – W. Somerset Maugham


If you’re outside the U.S, and don’t have access to a HPB, I hope you have the equivalent because my dear God above. Most used bookstores peddle excess copies of Patterson and Sparks and Mitch Albom in indecent numbers; HPB has those, but also obscure works by major authors, beautiful editions and imports you’d never find elsewhere, especially not at these prices.

Older books about books – those out of copyright – can be found in Kindle editions, often for free. Some are delicious little beauties it’s unlikely you’d have heard of, both long form and short pieces in story collections. Coming across those makes my stomach flip.

Now that I’ve broached the topic, I should be a good egg and list these somewhere, shouldn’t I.

Meanwhile, enjoy this from Goodreads:


10 Most Popular Books About Books

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak (own, haven’t read – I KNOW)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin – (read)

The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield – (review copy, read)

The Eyre Affair (# 1 Thursday Next) – Jasper Fforde – (own, read)

84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff – (own, read and read)

Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury – (own, read, chose for Community-Wide Read for my library, read again)

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader – Anne Fadiman (own, read)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer (own review copy, haven’t read)

The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett (own, read)

Inkheart (Inheart #1) – Cornelia Funke (own, read)


A Sunday Commonplace

Books mentioned in this post:

New advance review books:

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Victoria: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin


A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden


The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland by Rory Stewart


Photo credit: Huffington Post

Photo credit: Huffington Post


Well, then. What have we learned this week?

I had a kick in the teeth of sorts, one FB-active divorced parents will identify with: my ex’s next wife has befriended and begun posting photos with my youngest child, something I know not because I’m stalking her – though, okay, sometimes I do: HI! – but because it’s the first time I’ve had to see her face pop up on my personal timeline along with one of my children’s.

Key word: MY.

So yes, if she stumbles past here now she knows target acquired. But then again, if she stops by she won’t stay long. Because I write mostly about literature. And, well…

No. I don’t think so.


Can I get a nerdy boom?

Can I get a nerdy boom?


Moving past. In my special place, in my special place.


Latest Binge Wathing Time Suck: Dexter.

Latest Binge Wathing Time Suck: Dexter.

All around shorter lists this week, bound to happen from time to time. Not as much came through the door, and I continue to progress in my reading at a snail’s pace. Part of this is due to excuses reasons noted previously, but it’s time I admitted it’s also directly related to my fixation with the series Dexter.

A serial killer is my guilty pleasure. When I get home from work every day I watch at least two episodes. Sometimes more. I switch to books when I hop into bed, but several hours’ worth of potential reading time are given over to watching people get hacked into pieces, then tossed into the ocean.

There is some bleeding over into my daily life directly resulting from my binges – and yes, that’s a freebie. Discussing fictional, theoretical murders (I swear, because prison libraries could never rival my own), I mentioned to my older son that Dexter‘s full of great advice regarding how to get rid of bodies. Over breakfast we discussed the most efficient way to kill: severing the aorta with one good thrust of a knife well sharpened.

Then I asked him to pass the salsa.





Perhaps most disturbing, I’m finding myself rooting for a serial killer. It’s true his victims are reprehensible, have taken innocent lives, and he’s taking them out before they can do more harm (since they’ve slipped through the justice system and gotten away with murder – literally), but the man’s killing people. The guilty are one thing. Not that I condone murder (this got weird, didn’t it), but an eye for an eye, now that I can get behind. But now, when a character gets annoying, I’m thinking, “Dexter, you know what to do!

Out of context, that sounds disturbing. Hell, in context it does. But if you’ve watched the show, you’ll know he’s an endearing psychopath. Much like how I’m an endearing raving lunatic. You do agree, right…?


The TV alternative to bingeing a great series is watching Donald Trump having his tantrums. I like my psychopaths fictional, thanks.


In what I’m realizing is more free time than I admit to having when anyone asks if I want to do something, I’ve been book blog jumping much more often. My Twitter feed is my first source for all news – books included – but it’s satisfying complementing that through reading what kindred souls have been enjoying – voracious readers whose opinions I respect. It does make my TBR list grow proportionately, but that’s no reason not to enjoy myself threading my way from book blog to book blog.



Actual reading-wise, I’ve finished both Matt Bell’s latest collection and the surprise upstart Molly Fox’s Birthday. I plucked it off the shelf at random, curling up in bed with it like a squirrel does its nuts. Remember how I don’t need a man in my life? This is why. He’d roll over on my books and cause me to lose my place.


Don’t make me go Dexter on your ass, son.

Reviews of both books to come.


“I realise that a certain school of thought says that who we are is something we construct for ourselves. We build our self out of what we think we remember.” – Molly Fox’s Birthday



In current reads, two are for review: Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians and The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland by Rory Stewart. The former forces me to switch gears to more stream of consciousness prose, working out reading muscles I’ve let atrophy. I’m getting into the rhythm, but slowly.

The latter took a bit of warming up to, due to the fact it started out weighted too much toward Stewart’s relationship with his father. A book should build interest in the main theme, concentrating on developing the hook that’s in the blurb – in this case, and more urgently, the subtitle – before trotting off in another direction to a more personal theme. Get me interested in your project, what the book’s ostensibly about, then tell me about your complex feelings about your father.

Now that I’m about halfway, it’s growing on me. I expect my thoughts to be positive.

I have a goal of getting more detail into these commonplace posts, including more conventional commonplace book content , i.e., quotes and specifics about other elements of my reading – ephemera, in other words. This includes trending topics I’m following, sidebars such as my decision to re-subscribe to The New York Times and why, what I’m picking up from other bloggers, and other details I’d like to track.

Developing the habit of posting on this theme was the first step. Fleshing it out is next.

Speaking of fleshing, maybe I’ll watch another episode or two of Dexter this evening. You know, while I’m sharpening my knife set. Because I watch Chopped, which is about cooking.

Sheesh! So touchy.

Have a lovely reading week. Until next time.


You don’t know Pooh: 12 Facts about A.A. Milne on the 90th anniversary of Winnie the Pooh


14 October 1926.

Publication of A.A.Milne’s Winnie the Pooh

A.A. and Christopher Robin Milne

A.A. and Christopher Robin Milne

“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.“  – Winnie the Pooh


Facts about A.A. Milne and Winnie the Pooh:

On this 90th anniversary of the publication of Winnie the Pooh, here are 12 facts about one children’s author who lead a life far more complex than you may know.

Happy Birthday, Pooh Bear.


1). In 2008, a collection of original illustrations featuring Winnie-the-Pooh and his animal friends sold for more than £1.2 million at auction in Sotheby’s, London. Forbes magazine ranked Winnie the Pooh the most valuable fictional character in 2002; Winnie the Pooh merchandising products alone had annual sales of more than $5.9 billion. In 2005, Winnie the Pooh generated $6 billion, a figure surpassed by only  Mickey Mouse. – Wikipedia

2). The Milne family home was at Cotchford Farm, Sussex.

It’s also where original Rolling Stones member Brian Jones – who bought the property in 1968 – was found dead in his swimming pool in 1969.


The Milne Family - Cotchford Farm

The Milne Family – Cotchford Farm


3). Winnie the Pooh was the name of Christopher Robin Milne’s teddy bear.

Pooh was purchased at Harrods department store in London, and given by A. A. Milne to his son Christopher Robin on his first birthday – August 21, 1921. He was called Edward (proper form of Teddy) Bear at the time.

The rest of the toys were received as gifts by Christopher Robin between 1920 and 1928.

Christopher Robin Milne and the original Winnie the Pooh

Christopher Robin Milne and the original Winnie the Pooh

Christopher Milne also played with a stuffed piglet, a tiger, a pair of kangaroos and a downtrodden donkey, and grew up near a forest that became the fictional 100 Acre Wood.



4).  A.A. Milne wrote much more than Winnie the Pooh.



After earning his mathematics degree from Cambridge University in 1903, Milne pursued a career as a writer, and was soon producing humorous pieces for the magazine Punch. Milne became assistant editor at Punch in 1906.

Winnie the Pooh himself debuted in a poem called “Teddy Bear” in a 1924 issue of the magazine.

Following his service in World War I, Milne became a successful playwright. Along with some original plays, he wrote dramatic adaptations, such as Toad at Toad Hall, adapted from The Wind in the Willows.  Milne also authored a popular detective novel, The Red House Mystery (1922).


redhousemystery“In the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon the Red House was taking its siesta. There was a lazy murmur of bees in the flower-borders, a gentle cooing of pigeons in the tops of the elms.” – The Red House Mystery



5).  Milne served in both WW I and WW II, and worked for a secret propaganda unit.

During World War I, Milne saw action as a soldier, including the Battle of the Somme. When illness rendered him unfit for the front, his writing talent led to his being tapped to join a secret propaganda unit, MI7b, in 1916.




6).  Milne grew up at Henley House School, 6/7 Mortimer Road (now Crescent), Kilburn, a small public school run by his father. One of his teachers was H.G. Wells, who taught there in 1889–90.


Henley House

Henley House


7). The success of his children’s books was an annoyance to him. He wished to break out of the Pooh books, but they became so popular he found himself stuck in that niche.


8). In 2006, Winnie the Pooh received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


Winnie Goes to Hollywood

Winnie Goes to Hollywood


9).  In 1951, Christopher Milne, the muse behind Christopher Robin, opened the Harbour Bookshop with his wife Lesley.


Harbour Bookshop, Dartmouth

Harbour Bookshop, Dartmouth


10). The original Pooh bear, Piglet, Kanga, Tigger and Eeyore now reside at the New York Public Library




11). In honor of the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II and 90th anniversary of Winnie the Pooh, a new story titled “Winnie the Pooh and the Royal Birthday” has been narrated by actor Jim Broadbent.




12). There’s an upcoming Biopic of A.A. Milne in the works.

Domnhall Gleeson and Margot Robbie Fox Searchlight/David Appleby

Domnhall Gleeson and Margot Robbie
Fox Searchlight/David Appleby


“So they went off together. But wherever they
go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in
that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a
little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

-The House at Pooh Corner

Art Comes from the Place You Dream: An evening with Robert Olen Butler


Not heavy on literary events, 2016, though I’m rather proud of the lengths I went to in order to see Stephen King. It involved ten hours of driving, then five hours broiling on a sidewalk in the Louisville heat like a toad in a frying pan, dehydrated to the point I was near-hallucinating by the time I fell into my seat in the shade of the pavillion.

Never have I come so near weeping at the sight of an ass-breaking plastic seat. It shone like a lake in the desert. If I’d had any fluid left in my body, I’d have wept.

There was Irvine Welsh, as well. Not as dramatic an approach, but one hell of a fun evening. There was beer, laughter, moments of insight into the human condition as it applies to Scotland and universally, and one of my favorite author inscriptions ever.

Few but mighty, my 2016 literary functions.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to meet a writer native to the state I’ve called home since the age of three. Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer winner for the story collection Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, was born in Granite City, IL on January 20, 1945. His father an actor and theatre chairman at St. Louis University, Butler worked in the steel mills, equally at home with artists and blue collar laborers.


Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler and I have been as tight as any two Facebook connected strangers, lo these past couple of years. We’ve had our share of “Likes,” mostly mine in response to his posts. But who’s counting.

Not long past knee surgery, Butler’s currently engaged in a multi-nation book tour. When I saw he was coming to Milwaukee, I thought here’s my chance to meet him in person. It isn’t a long drive to Milwaukee, only an hour and a half or so. It’s also a very pretty route, if you avoid the expressways. There are many less pleasant ways to spend early autumn evenings.

Arriving at the venue, Boswell Book Company, like any 21st century being worth my salt I checked in via Facebook. Self-satisfied as likes began coming in fast and furious, I settled into a ridiculously comfortable leather chair in the front row, opening a review book to get in a bit of “work.”

Roughly ten minutes later, Robert Olen Butler himself strolled by, greeted me by name, shook my hand and chatted with me. Because he’d seen my post, in which I’d tagged him, of course.





Following a 37-minute reading from his new book, Butler and the moderator – a former writing student of his, now professor of English – spoke about what it means to be an artist, from where inspiration springs and briefly covered Butler’s career. The author of a couple dozen novels, several collections of stories and one book on the craft of writing, Robert Olen Butler admits he doesn’t fit easily into any genre, that in fact hardly do any two of his books seem to have been produced by the same writer.

The New York Times has called Butler a restless writer, one as comfortable writing literary fiction as thrillers, short stories and nonfiction. His range is broad, his gift translatable to multiple genres, fitting neatly into none. Asked to explain how each of his books inform the next, he replied his literary fiction is better for having written mystery/thrillers, and his mystery/thrillers better for his experience with literary fiction.


Akiro Kurosawa

Akiro Kurosawa

“To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.”  – Akira Kurosawa, as quoted by Robert Olen Butler.



They discussed how art comes from the creative unconscious, from “mucking about” in the mind with life’s big ideas and concepts. Butler’s own assessment is all art is about yearning, all fiction about yearning challenged and thwarted. We use politics and religion and race to define ourselves and justify our actions, but in the end it’s all about finding our place in the Universe.

As Butler said, “It’s about waking up every morning asking, “Who the fuck am I?”‘

When you think about it, he’s nailed it.

With his Pulitzer-winning Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, he took somewhat of a risk speaking in the voices of multiple Vietnamese first person narrators, set in Southern Louisiana. During his service in Vietnam, Butler became enchanted, falling in love with the country and people.  Having learned the language prior to deploymen, he talked about wandering the side-streets of Saigon, solo but unafraid, armed only with his ability to communicate.


Moderator: What’s it like being such a lauded author?

Robert Olen Butler: You don’t sell very much.


His newest, Perfume River, returns to the same themes as Good Scent:


“His new novel, however, plays it straight. Though compact, the book ­ranges widely in time and setting to trace the effects of war — primarily the Vietnam conflict — on several generations of a New Orleans family. Butler’s Faulknerian shuttling back and forth across the decades has less to do with literary pyrotechnics than with cutting to the chase. “Perfume River” hits its marks with a high-stakes intensity. ” – NY Times


As inspiration for his Cobb series of mystery/thrillers, Butler took a collection of fifteen postcards, written between 1906 and 1917, and chose one voice: a man writing about President Woodrow WIlson’s 1914 invasion of Mexico. From that piece, he was contracted to write three novels, historical espionage with a “backbeat of suspense,” as he describes them. He’s currently working on the latest in the series, titled Paris in the Dark.

Book One - Cobb series

Book One – Cobb series








Cobb Series - Book Two

Book Two – Cobb Series








Book Three - Cobb Series

Book Three – Cobb Series








Endlessly inventive, in 2014 Butler shared his writing process through the creation of a short story, shared live in seventeen two-hour YouTube videos. That’s thirty-four hours of writing instruction given by a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. He describes it as “like watching paint dry.” I doubt that.

I followed him on Facebook when he was engaged in the project, but I’d entirely forgotten about it. Of course I want to watch them, and of course it’s easy to vow I will. I still may, now that he reminded me.

My Facebook bestie.

My Facebook bestie.

I’m so glad I peeled myself off the sofa for the drive to Milwaukee. I’ve not regretted a single author event I’ve attended, it’s just easier to stay put than drag yourself out the door. But every writer has wisdom to share, and I’ve never met one who wasn’t generous and kind, happy and willing to answer questions you know they’ve been asked hundreds of times.

It’s always worth it, every one.

Art does not come from your head. It comes from the place you dream.

– Robert Olen Butler


How well do we know authors? How well should we?: Elena Ferrante Unmasked

Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan Novels

Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels


Rather than being acclaimed as masterpiece of sleuthing, there was a decidedly negative reaction to Gatti’s investigation. Most people felt that Ferrante’s multi-decade anonymity had been unnecessarily violated, and crucially without her consent. – David O’Dwyer, Irish Times


I was reading a brief article in the Irish Times this morning on the topic of Elena Ferrante, anonymous author of the “Neapolitan Novels” series, who she is, and if it’s any of our damn business. Italian journalist Claudio Gatti took it upon himself to seek out the author, unmasking her. Though it’s easily Googled, I’m not going to speak her name here – HINT: it’s not Voldemort.

I feel what he did was terribly wrong, stalker-ish behavior disrespectful of the author’s personal decision to conceal her identity.  As readers, no matter how much we love an author’s work, they owe us nothing. They produce art for public consumption, and should they choose to share themselves with us that’s a bonus. But we certainly don’t deserve it simply because we wish we knew. Their works are stand-alone, not invitations to the general public to investigate or obtain any ownership of the writer.


She wanted anonymity so her work would speak for her – I fully support that. – Ian Rankin


This set me thinking about the common tendency to speculate an author’s fiction is a reflection of his or her own experience, that no work of fictional prose comes solely from outside. So, we presume we know all about an author from reading his or her work, as well. We deconstruct and presume to know, but believing does not make it so.

Prose fiction is certainly shaped by the sum total of an author’s education and experience – it cannot happen any other way, consciously or unconsciously – but this does not mean we can analyze the author personally based on what s/he produces fictionally. It’s far too complex a matter to separate what’s the writer’s personality and what’s creative inspiration based on experience and inspiration outside the writer’s mind.


I have written a memoir here and there, and that takes its own form of selfishness and courage. However, generally speaking, I have no interest in writing about my own life or intruding in the privacy of those around me. – Peter Carey


It’s tempting, of course, to presume all fiction comes from a deep, dark spot in a writer’s psyche, but just because a thought occurs to a person that doesn’t mean it comes from that person’s own belief system or experience. It’s faulty logic. Ideas come from all sources; there is no original idea. How a theme is expanded upon is necessarily colored by a person’s experience, but we cannot know where reality ends and fiction picks up.

Writers are not public property. They may become celebrated, and may choose to interact with fans, but what they give is a persona, what they want us to see. It’s the same with everyone, creative or not. We show what we choose to, and owe nothing we don’t wish to share.


Secrecy is what is known, but not to everyone. Privacy is what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves. – Jill Lepore


Why should writers be held to a different standard just because readers want to know more? This sense of entitlement is over-reaching. It’s none of our damn business.

To the writer behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante, you deserved your privacy. I was sorry to hear that was violated. Your fiction was gift enough.

It’s a shame human nature leads to the assumption we should be privy to a thing just because we wish it. It is what it is, but it’s one of many sad statements about the human condition.

Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear opinions.



2016 NBA finalists announced






And then there were five…

I’m still set on Colson Whitehead winning the 2016 NBA. Seeing that distinctive red cover of The Underground Railroad, I paused nary a second. He’s got this. While not the greatest living American writer, he has undeniable cachet. His kaleidoscopic imagination is impressive; his status as a writer of serious literary fiction cannot be contested. Having read and reviewed his prose, I’m well aware how very good he can be.

The Underground Railroad has serious forward momentum unrelated to its NBA nomination. The Oprah endorsement unleashed the great masses, bringing Whitehead a much-deserved wider audience, but I’m wondering if snobbery will rear its head when the judges bring down their gavels. While Whitehead is a literary writer, opinion about Oprah’s seal of approval is a lot more mixed. There’s a chance she’ll do him more harm than good.



Colson Whitehead’s novels are rebellious creatures: Each one of them goes to great lengths to break free of the last one, of its structure and language, of its areas of interest. At the same time, they all have one thing in common — the will to work within a recognizable tract of popular culture, taking advantage of conventions while subverting them for the novel’s own purposes.



“I lianotherbrooklynfted my head to look up into the changing leaves, thinking how at some point, we were all headed home. At some point, all of this, everything and everyone, became memory.”

– Another Brooklyn


I’ve read pieces of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn, a short but meaty novel easily downed in the space of an afternoon. Effortlessly elegant, it’s very heavy in ideas and depth of truths revealed. But for all its smooth perfection, I don’t see it beating out the Magnificent Whitehead.

It’s simply not big enough: not in scope, not in power.



Paulette Giles I know purely through osmosis, from bits I’ve read becoming lodged in my consciousness forming my vague impression of her. From what I’ve gathered, she writes great book club picks. Never have I considered her works heavily literary. I was a bit surprised seeing her here.

If one of these things is not like the others, I’d have to pick Paulette Giles.

Reviews of her book are sparse, a little curious considering the NBA committee pushed her through to the final round. Even the Kirkus review I found says precious little of substance:



In post–Civil War Texas, a 10-year-old girl makes an odyssey back to her aunt and uncle’s home after living with the Kiowa warriors who had killed her parents four years earlier.


A bit less than compelling.

I found no long-form reviews of News of the World. Curious.

About the other two I know not at all, so I did a little digging:






In his wistful and elegantly written fourth novel, “The Throwback Special,” Chris Bachelder plays Jane Goodall to a large group of middle-aged men who assume the role of his chimpanzees. Bachelder observes their rituals with a blend of affection and befuddlement over the course of a weekend, when they have gathered to take part in an activity that feels somehow both wildly imaginative and completely familiar. For 16 straight years, they have re-enacted one of the most iconic and gruesome plays in football history, when the Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked the Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann in 1985, shattering Theismann’s leg and ending his career.


I could never have imagined a book about sports-addicted men appealing to me, but dammit, this one does. The review left me bug-eyed. I can’t imagine a premise less appealing, yet I found it fascinating.






The New Yorker:

In “The Association of Small Bombs” (Viking), Karan Mahajan’s second novel, Shaukat (Shockie) Guru, a Kashmiri terrorist, considers the explosion he has just set off at a busy market in Delhi and glumly concludes that it “was all anticlimax.” This is a dark thought about mass murder, and a dark joke about the narrative nature of terrorism.


Reading The New Yorker’s review, it becomes readily apparent this is a heavy-weight contender. Are we ready for such a treatment on the topic of terrorism? Mainstream as it’s become, ubiquitous in its everyday-ness, I think so.

“Too soon” has passed.

The Association of Small Bombs is described here as “daring(ly) imaginative,” and “promiscuous.” But don’t imagine his is a dismissive treatment of terrorism, nor any silly rendering:


“In the first few pages of his new novel, he renders the spectacle of the bombing with a languid, balletic beauty, pitting the unhurried composure of his prose against the violence of the events it describes.”


Terrorism is another topic near the bottom of my list of favorite fictional themes, but this review is simply phenomenal.




Count me on Team Whitehead, though if any other book comes back to bite The Underground Railroad, it will be The Association of Small Bombs. Because if there’s one thing a literary award should honor, it’s big, relevant themes – which both these books share.

That’s where the money is.

NBA, we’re waiting.

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan


  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth (July 19, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553418874
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553418873


The Sunlight Pilgrims is Fagan’s second novel, following her much-lauded The Panopticon, a novel about a teenage girl named Anais who, following a childhood spent bouncing between dozens of foster families, is sent to a live in a home for chronic young offenders. Anais’s arrest record is long, including hundreds of offenses. Thrown together with offenders of all stripes, The Panopticon tells the story of a group of equally damaged young people who form a family of sorts.

About writing a second novel following a very successful debut, Fagan writes:

panopticonThe second novel is always difficult and I certainly found that to be true. I had to ignore what anyone else thought to a certain extent. I knew it was a risk in some ways to write a novel that was quite different to my debut but there is not point to writing for me, unless I am willing to put something on the line, emotionally, intellectually or otherwise. I loved spending time in the world of The Sunlight Pilgrims, it was difficult and challenging but I wanted to be there. 


The Sunlight Pilgrims, similar to her first book, features a main character struggling outside the mainstream, this time a transgender teen who’s reinvented himself as a girl named Estelle/Stella. Prejudice is a large part of Stella’s experience, as classmates in the fictional small village of Clachan Fells in the Highlands of Scotland cast her out, lifelong friends turned vicious enemies.

It’s the year 2020,  global warming now a dangerous and lethal force threatening to freeze over the globe. An iceberg the size of a house drifts into the bay at Clachan Fells, locals equally transfixed and terrified about what it portends. Snowfalls creep up the sides of homes, burying cars and killing people through white-out storms, as temperatures plummet below – 48 F. Local emergency facilities are set up, villagers scrambling to keep each other alive.

In the midst of the chaos transpires the inevitable conceit of a love story. Tall, dark and handsome Dylan MacCrae, whose mother had bought a caravan in this remote village for reasons he doesn’t immediately understand, moves to Clachan Fells following the deaths of both his mother and grandmother, in rapid succession. Carrying their ashes, he leaves behind the family movie theatre that’s gone bust, looking for a new life in Scotland.

Immediately  he and Stella’s mother fall in love, to the great joy of Stella, who wished this from the moment she met their new neighbor – a conventional, “fated” moment allowing for some rather cringe-inducing prose:


Dylan tries to be subtle about watching Constance, but it is compulsive. It’s like watching a fire. She is the fire and her daughter the wind – howling long the rooftops, rattling at his windows all last night, warning him she could blow his house down and it is not a house, it is a caravan – d.e.n.i.a.l.. It’s not a river in Egypt, that’s what the kid would say.


It’s like Wuthering Heights, only cheesy. The land is windswept and menacing, the handsome man insanely in love with the beautiful woman on first sight. Then Fagan starts writing high-flown prose about love, and it all falls apart. As dramatic writing, it doesn’t work. As dramatic writing with an attempt at humor thrown in, it’s like watching a train wreck – or reading about one, in this case.

The killer winter is terrifying, but at the same time there’s a certain beauty to it. Aside from the awesome iceberg, the illusion of a triple sun – known as a “sun dog” – thrills the small community. As there’s nothing to be done to prevent the weather, the villagers flock to see this natural phenomenon, the one literal bright spot in the ever-increasing dark of a long, lethal winter.

If the world is going to end, they may as well take in the awesome spectacle in the time they have left.

Sun Dogs - illusion of three suns appearing in the sky

Sun Dogs – illusion of three suns appearing in the sky

Despite ominous threats to the lives of the characters , the plot is disappointingly lacking in urgency. What she does well is interweave complex plot lines, juggling multiple characters and their stories. What she doesn’t do as well is pull taut the strings, to maintain forward momentum. She left room for just enough sway to let the reader’s attention drift – the crucial dividing line between a good novel and a great one.

Fagan also descends into moments of purple prose, overwritten passages that derail the book. The world around them is doomed, yet her characters at times bounce around like Tigger. The effect is jarringly inconsistent. This is not quite a romance, not quite post-apocalpytic, lacking definitive purpose.

The Sunlight Pilgrims could have used one, last really tough edit which it unfortunately did not get. In the end, the support structure just wasn’t there. Maybe there was too much pressure to produce a great second novel, maybe she felt rushed. Whatever the reason, The Sunlight Pilgrims is an okay book with moments of very good prose, just not enough to tip the balance.


A Sunday Commonplace

Books mentioned in this post:

Review copies:

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – finished

Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernieres

The Past by Tessa Hadley

The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland by Rory Stewart

Mercury by Margot Livesey

The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano (transl: Mark Polizzotti)


Victorian Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton

Every Single Minute by Hugo Hamilton

Current reading:

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

Recently finished:

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by DG Compton

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – review to come


As autumn rolls in, I imagine reading in front of a roaring fire, while orange and red and yellow leaves drift languidly to the ground outside my picture window framed by heavy velvet drapes, a bottomless cup of coffee at my elbow, a loyal dog at my slipper-clad feet. The unfortunate reality is I live in an 80s vintage apartment building sans fireplace, count myself lucky when I have clean clothes – not daring to dream anything matches – and the closest I get to open flame is candles I own but seldom burn, partly because I have two cats with not enough sense between them to avoid setting themselves – and my apartment – on fire.

And the dream goes *POOF*

No leather armchairs reeking of wealth indenting oriental rugs, no polished mahogany bookshelves crammed with leather bindings, no crackling and popping of exploding sap, no scent of seasoned logs licked by fire… Just a suburban apartment  furnished half by The Room Place, half by Target (which sells serviceable books shelves at really great prices, by the way).

One does what one must, which doesn’t stop one from bitching about it the whole time.

Fall is my favorite season. Fleeting though it is, I hope to make some time to enjoy it: shuffling through the leaves, carving pumpkins, feeling the crisp air that reddens the cheeks, the annual pulling out of the sweaters. I’ve always loved the colors most, then the smells of what I know is actually decay in preparation for the hibernation of winter, but still it’s the best and most glorious time of year.

I look forward to it all as October arrives.


At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost. – Rainer Maria Rilke


Before I go any further, I have to admit a most embarrassing truth: I’ve purchased and received several – okay many, many – books over the course of the past two weeks that I’d love to list here for posterity, however, in the process of quick-cleaning my apartment I tossed them onto random shelves and can scarcely tell what’s new and what’s been here for years. I’m sitting here looking at the fruits of my labor, semi-pleased with myself for having made the place look remotely habitable, and though I could perhaps paw through the stacks and stacks and stacks in order to locate every recent book purchase or advance copy, I’ve scattered them to the extent it would be a challenge.

This is when you know – in case it hadn’t already dawned – you own an awful lot of books. And by awful, I mean tremendously wonderful, mind-blowingly awesome numbers of them.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a serious discrepancy between numbers of books arriving and those making the “finished” list. Of late, both my credit card and the review fairy have been rather generous, which I assume to mean I’ve been extraordinarily deserving, as what other explanation could there be?

Victorian Bloomsbury

Victorian Bloomsbury

Today, Bloomsbury means Virginia Woolf and her coevals but, as Ashton shows so vividly, it was the district’s reputation as a centre of intellectual life that in reality drew the “Bloomsberries”: they didn’t create the area, the area created them. – Judith Flanders



Also with the onset of fall comes a certain desire for a bit of more planned, structured reading, possibly because it’s the start of the academic year, which in my formative days meant assigned books and syllabi. Tossing around a few ideas, one I’ve settled upon is a planned reading of a mystery series. An embarrassing number of hours frittered away spent Amazon researching later, I decided to go with a series suggested by one of my favorite Scots, Chris of Morse, Lewis and Endeavour,  who tipped me off about Scottish mystery writer Christopher Brookmyre.


Christopher Brookmyer

Christopher Brookmyre

The best source for Brookmyre’s books – price and availability-wise – is a shop in the UK,  so I placed an Amazon order for the first three titles to make sure I like them well enough before buying the full series:

Quite Ugly One Morning

Country of the Blind

Not the End of the World

I considered lots of series mysteries before making my decision, including: works of Ngaio Marsh, the Maisie Dobbs series, Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher novels, all the popular Scandinavian noir writers, among loads of others. What lead me to go with Brookmyre was the promise of a rather off-beat and quirky style, different from the sort of grim mysteries I normally gravitate toward – though no promises I won’t turn back to those before winter snows thaw.

It was partly to counter the grim nature of the frozen winter that I chose this series, which sounds quirky in a way that’s not cringe-inducingly precious. Because I despise cloying prose.

Quite Ugly One Morning is the book that made Christopher Brookmyre a star in his native Britain, establishing his distinctive, scabrously humorous style and breakneck, hell-for-leather narrative pacing … Quite Ugly One Morning introduces Brookmyre’s signature protagonist, the hard-partying, wisecracking investigative journalist Jack Parlabane, who is not afraid to bend the laws of the land (or even the laws of gravity) to get to the truth … Laced with acerbic wit and crackling dialogue, Quite Ugly One Morning is a wickedly entertaining and vivacious thriller.  – Amazon blurb

I’d like to decide on another course of planned reading, though what I don’t know. It’s a delicate balance as I read and review advance copies, sneaking in a few titles from my own collection in between. And always the postman brings more.

Though he doesn’t ring twice. It’s a myth.

In reading, I’ve just finished Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims, for review later this week. Current advance copy reading is Matt Bell’s A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a thick book of short stories, and one of several half-started volumes lying on the bed next to me or on the table beside the bed.

I’m between books for the most part, too overwhelmed by the wealth of riches to have settled on anything outside Bell’s book. No wonder, considering the tide coming in, but by the end of this evening I should have a clearer picture of my reading week, and what’s to come through the rest of the month.

In the not too distant future, it will be time to wrap up My Reading Year, 2016. But that gives me a headache. I think I have enough to keep my hands from becoming too idle in the meantime.

Among other things, I can search for my new books to name in my next round up. Yes, I think that’s the goal I’ll set for myself. Big enough without being too overwhelming.

And a very happy October to all.