From Philip Roth’s home to mine: on buying a piece of his estate

Since reading Portnoy’s Complaint sometime back in the 90s, I’ve never been a Philip Roth fan. But tell me he’s dead and they’re selling his stuff, and I’m all over it.

I blame it on Twitter: specifically, author and Chicago Tribune “Biblioracle” columnist John Warner, who, on that fateful day, tweeted he’d won an auction for Philip Roth’s alarm clock.

Wait. What?

It was Saturday, July 20. I work part days on Saturdays, and to stave off the boredom and resentment I always have my phone next to me, left hand scrolling Facebook and Twitter limitlessly. Running bang up against John’s tweet, I grabbed the URL for the Roth estate auction.

Ebay made up the entirety of my previous auction experience. I used to drop in once in a while, to snap up old Penguin paperback editions and the occasional oddity, like a postcard from the town in the Netherlands where my family hailed from — hey, big spender.

Litchfield County Auctions is the real deal, where the rich go to pick up Persian rugs and Chippendale armoires. I felt like someone’s hick relative in overalls, sucking on a piece of straw. But such is the beauty of the internet: “belonging” there only means I haven’t reached the limit on my credit card.

It was phenomenal, like someone had taken Roth’s house just as he’d left it, turned it on its side and shook every, single damn thing out. You name it, they sold it. There were ratty old afghans, lamps and tables, fine collectible Chinese vases and figurines, paintings and so many silver pieces. So many.

As it was a live auction, all I had to do was shove my credit card information at them, watching as each item came up and bidding commenced. While some things went for tens of thousands, a few bits and bobs, I noticed, were quite affordable. Tentatively, I hit the bid button for a couple vases. When they rose too high for my blood, I went on to a Chinese figurine. Unwilling to chase it over $ 100, I scrolled ahead to upcoming items.

Then I saw it: a Chinese reverse painting on glass.

I had only the vaguest idea what “reverse painting” meant, but it was lovely and the estimated sale price was in the range I was willing to spend. I watched as one person bid, then another. It wasn’t getting a lot of attention; I held my breath. When last call!, then final warning!!! popped up I swooped in and bid as the gavel came down.

I imagined the glowing face of the high bidder as the auctioneer was ready to call it, mentally measuring out the place he’d hang it next to the fireplace, his new “Roth niche.”

Then, BAM!

“You’ve been outbid, sucker!”

All’s fair in love and auctions.

My impression of Roth’s writing, aside from the narrow scope of my experience with Portnoy, was that he’s a man’s writer. And when I say man’s writer, I’m staring squarely at Ernest Hemingway — poster boy for excess testosterone. Not that I imagine the scholarly Jewish writer had a penchant for big game hunting, nor that he regularly got toasted and ripped off his shirt in his editor’s office, as Hemingway was wont to do.

Roth was a bit more restrained. Just a tad.

Fairly or not (probably not), judging him solely based on a novel about a young man’s obsession with masturbation, I’ve always believed he’s a writer obsessed with sex.

Before you start going all feminist on me, I know full well women have written about sex. I have no issue with that, but, to my knowledge, none have done so quite so famously as Roth, at least not on the topic of young men and masturbation. And I’m not only not interested in young men and masturbation, I actively avoid it.

Perhaps I should use the word masturbation one more time in this post, what do you think.

Hey there, fella. You’re one magnificent bastard.

Since the Roth item arrived, I’ve begun researching his life and work, reading reviews and watching interviews on YouTube. Though it pains me to say it, I may have rushed to judgment. Philip Roth wrote some 30ish novels. The more I read, the more it behooves me to investigate him further before making up my mind he’s not my thing, if for no other reason than I own one small piece of his estate.

That I bought on impulse. Because Twitter made me.

Meanwhile, I have a lovely Chinese reverse painting on glass I need to hang in my Philip Roth niche. I don’t have a fireplace, but I do have an Ikea dresser. Chippendale it ain’t, but what did we decide about “belonging”?

It’s all about having room on your credit card.

Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter

28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943

We know her as the creator of Peter Rabbit, but Helen Beatrix Potter was also a talented illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist.

Life-long lovers of animals, as children she and her brother Bertram – who grew up to become an artist in his own right – kept a menagerie ranging from mice to bats to hedgehogs to – no surprise – rabbits. The two were sheltered growing up, only each other as playmates, educated at home by governesses. Similar to the Brontë children in their insularity breeding expressions of creativity, the two spent summer holidays at Dalguise House (Perthshire) in Scotland and, later, the Lake District of England (Cumbria).

Dalguise House, Perthshire, Scotland.

Fascinated by the natural world, they happily sketched and scribbled alongside their artistically gifted parents.

Origin of Peter Rabbit, letter to Noel Moore, 1893.
Noel Moore.

Though not published in book form until the early 1900s, Peter Rabbit’s origin lies in letters written from Potter to the children of her former governess, Annie Carter Moore. The letters began when Annie’s son, Noel, was recovering from scarlet fever. To cheer him, Beatrix sent a story based on a rabbit she’d had as a child, a Belgian buck called Peter Piper.

Many more “picture letters” followed, telling the adventures of Peter and friends. Annie Moore suggested Beatrix put the stories in book form for publication. Twenty-three books later, the Tales of Peter Rabbit were complete.

Despite the fact so much of her life was devoted to children’s literature, Beatrix and her husband had no children. She was, however, a doting aunt, as well as godmother to Beatrix Moore, daughter of Annie.

“If I have done anything, even a little, to help small children enjoy honest, simple pleasures, I have done a bit of good.” 

– Beatrix Potter

A few more interesting bits about Beatrix Potter:

  1. The inspiration for her characters unknown, in 2001 the names Nutkins, McGregor, Peter Rabbett and Jeremiah Fisher were discovered in burial records for Brompton Cemetery, London – the city where Potter grew up. Sounds like more than a coincidence, doesn’t it, especially considering she lived only a short walk away from 1863 – 1913.

Grave of Susannah Nutkins.

2. As a child, budding artist Beatrix was taken by her father to the Natural History Museum in London, as well as the Victoria & Albert, where she practiced sketching.

Accurately detailed watercolors of fungi made her well-respected in the world of mycology, and she created paintings of other flora and fauna, as well. Not content with just drawing them, Potter educated herself in the ways mushrooms reproduced, even conducting her own experiments. What stopped her from pursuing her interest further was the fact women were barred from scientific societies.

Who knows what she’d have achieved in the scientific world.

Lepitoa procera (Armitt Museum and Library) by Beatrix Potter
Drawings of caterpillars by Beatrix Potter, V&A, London

3. Previously rejecting her manuscript, Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish a trade edition of Peter Rabbit in 1902. By the end of the year the book had sold 28,000 copies.

Other children’s literature published that year included: L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, Kipling’s Just So Stories and E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It.

Norman Warne, son of publisher Frederick and also Beatrix’s editor, became smitten by the writer after an increasingly flirtatious exchange of letters about characters from her book Two Bad Mice. Upon their engagement, her parents objected saying Norman Warne was not her social equal. She defied them but, sadly, Warne died unexpectedly of undiagnosed leukemia before they could marry.

Out of town when he died, Beatrix didn’t make it back in time for the funeral. He was 37.

The 2006 film Miss Potter tells the sad story of Beatrix and Norman Warne. Writing about Beatrix Potter’s love of him, Sara Glenn, curator of the Warne archives states:

“Reading Beatrix’s letters, I was surprised to find that her love for Norman never died. We think of Beatrix Potter as a strong, private woman, but these letters show her intense loneliness.”

Norman Warne and his nephew Fred, ca. 1900

Having dreamt of sharing her life with Norman at Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey in the Lake District, Beatrix purchased the house and land the autumn after his death.

The flowers love the house, they try to come in. … but nothing more sweet than the old pink cabbage rose that peeps in at the small paned windows.

– Beatrix Potter, on Hill Top Farm

Ironically, Beatrix’s brother Bertram made a match that would have horrified his parents, as well, marrying Mary Welsh Scott, a former mill worker. He was astute (and confoundingly clever) enough to keep the union secret for a decade.

His father’s response when his son finally told him of his marriage? He wrote Bertram out of his will.

Difficult to like that man, isn’t it.

Beatrix, Bertram and doggo Potter.

4. Later in life, as president of the Herdwick sheep association she won prizes for Herdwick ewes at shows around Cumbria. Upon her death she bequeathed 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust, for the express purpose of sheep grazing.

Beatrix and shepherd Tom Storey, with one of her favorite Herdwick ewes, Water Lily.
Herdwick ewes!

5. On 13 October 1913, Beatrix Potter married William Heelis, a property attorney who helped her purchase land in the Lake District of England, located within the county of Cumbria, on which she would raise her beloved sheep.

In their 70s at the time of their engagement, her parents didn’t approve of this match, either. Beatrix and William married despite them, and by all accounts were happy.

Take that, mum and dad.

Beatrix Potter and William Heelis

6. Potter’s father, Rupert William Potter, was an amateur photographer and sketch artist specializing in portraits and landscapes. Photographs provided to his friend, noted landscape painter John Everett Millais, served as inspiration for the famous artist’s work. He also took photos of Millais’s sitters and portaits, which the painter used to aid him.

Though educated as a barrister, a fortune inherited from his father Edmund’s business, Dinting Vale Calico Printing Works , meant he never had to practice.

The Lake District, photo by Rupert Potter.

It was inherited money that made Beatrix’s father feel she was too good for any man. Not land and titles, but her grandfather’s inventiveness in mechanizing the manufacture of previously handmade, labor-intensive calico. Edmund Potter also believed in education for all, building the Logwood Mill School and providing a reading room and library for his factory workers.

Beatrix Potter and Alice Crompton Potter by Rupert William Potter

7. Her mother, Helen Leech Potter, was likewise no slouch as an artist.

Hilltop, Cumbria by Helen Leech Potter
Helen Leech and Beatrix Potter

Helen also kept a scrapbook of cards sent to her daughter from various relatives and friends of the Potter family, compiled between 1872 and 1878 – an invaluable collection of ephemera relating to a beloved writer.

8. Beginning at age 14, Beatrix Potter kept a coded journal. It would not be decoded until Leslie Linder, a superfan of the author who later donated an extensive collection of materials by and about the writer to the V&A Museum, cracked the code after 13 long years.

In 1966, the journal was published for the first time by Frederick Warne Ltd, the same company that had published Peter Rabbit decades ago.

Potter’s diary is full of hints at her future as an artist and writer. “I can’t settle to anything but my painting, I lost my patience over everything else,” she wrote at the end of one particularly agitated page. Plenty of entries close with the name of a book she had recently finished, or contain one of her signature, detailed, occasionally brutal art reviews.

Atlas Obscura

I admit I didn’t have much interest in Beatrix Potter until I read the dozen or so articles and online sources from which I extracted information for this post. Though we had a miniature set of the Tales of Peter Rabbit when my kids were small, the stories were too slow-moving for them.

I couldn’t have imagined she led such a fascinating life, and there are loads of books about her. I recommend you visit Amazon to check them out.

Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter.

Jane Austen Bicentenary: 1817 – 2017


Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. Austenites world-wide have been in a tizzy of activity all year, organizing programs and events scheduled out past the bicentenary date.

Every site associated with her life will be buzzing this summer, converged upon by fans the world over. Joining them in their pilgrimage will be the Scot and I, who’ll be making the journey to Austen country later this month. Think of us as we’re elbowing past tourists at Chawton Cottage, shoving people off her tombstone in Winchester Cathedral so we can get photos, and squinting at maps of Bath to locate the places she lived and wrote about.


The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Northanger Abbey


Imagine what she’d make of all this brouhaha, how she’d feel knowing the passionate devotion her fans still feel 200 years later. No shrinking violet, she may still blush crimson. If she’d experienced this degree of mania in her lifetime, just think how comfortable she and her sister Cassandra would have been. Not just comfortable but wealthy, in a position to tell off her brother Henry for his stingy treatment of her. It would have changed everything.

In an earlier post, I mentioned my amazement at how many new books are still popping out about her life and work, and that a few review titles have been sent my way by publishers. Since then I’ve heard about one other, a novel this time, whose premise has left me scratching my head:


Harper Perennial
May 2017


London, 1815: Two travelers–Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane–arrive in a field in rural England, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. Turned away at a nearby inn, they are forced to travel by coach all night to London. They are not what they seem, but rather colleagues who have come back in time from a technologically advanced future, posing as wealthy West Indies planters–a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team from the future to “go back,” their mission is by far the most audacious: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself.


Do I request it, do I not? It may be perfectly dreadful. I’m not a big fan of modern retellings of Austen. A literary purist of sorts, I’d rather stick with the primary texts, as well as nonfiction about her and her work. Still, every time a new book comes out related to Jane Austen I notice. I’ll think about it.

My own first experience with Austen was in college. I took a course on Victorian women’s fiction, and despite the fact she’s actually Regency, the professor stuck  Northanger Abbey on the syllabus. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t turn me into a fan. Situated alongside Bronte and Eliot, it came off a little thin, especially since I wasn’t at all acquainted with the gothic fiction Austen mocked in the novel.


The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!

Sense and Sensibility


It was Pride & Prejudice, read much later when my kids were little and I joined an online book group to keep my brain from atrophying, that eventually hooked me. From there I went on to Emma, then Sense & Sensibility. It took me a couple of years, but I got through her other books, as well. Now I adore her.

The Scot and I are so looking forward to chasing Austen, and I’ll have plenty to tell and show you when we get back. Also, reviews of those books I’ve been teasing about. Possibly others I snag in the meantime, too.

Here’s to Jane Austen and her enduring fame. Her astute observations on contemporary Regency society, deep empathy for the plight of women, champion of true love and occasionally wicked, rapier-like wit are forever fresh, no matter how many times I re-read her books.

We’re so fortunate to have had her in the world, however short a time it was.


Jane Austen: 1775 – 1817

New books about Austen, Woolf and the Brontës


2017: A Year of Literary Nonfiction Celebrating British Women Writers

Hat tip to nonfiction scribblers assiduously churning out new literary biographies and criticism about these iconic female authors each and every year. Convinced surely there could be no new angle, I’m always pleasantly surprised when out pops a new one. Wherever this New Idea Generator is located, long may it churn.

Possible candidate: New Idea Generator

Common sense dictates at some future point original topics will be exhausted, until and unless something radically new is found in someone’s trunk or attic. Surely there’s a saturation point? But who am I to say. Keep ’em coming as long as possible. With the 200 year anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth last year, and 200th of not just Austen’s death but also the publication of her novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey this year, it’s a veritable bumper crop of delicious nonfiction titles. All the better.

I’ve long dreamed of the existence of an undiscovered Austen manuscript. Ditto the Brontës. Pry up those floorboards in the Haworth parsonage! There just may be something squirreled away.

New titles stretch out as far as early 2018, I’ve found via a few searches on Amazon. No doubt more are lurking past that. Certainly enough new stuff to keep devotees busy for quite some time.

I bought this one a couple of weeks ago. I’m currently reading and enjoying it very much:

Austen, Brontë and Woolf, oh my!

A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
Aurum Press
1 June 2017

And here are some of the others I’ve found whilst rooting around:

General works on female writers of the period

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon
19 Oct 2017


Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature by Shelley DeWees
Harper Perennial
12 Jan 2017

Virginia Woolf

Walking Virginia Woolf’s London by Lisbeth Larrson
Palgrave Macmillan
10 Aug. 2017



Virginia Woolf: A Portrait by Woodring, Forrester and Gladding
Columbia University Press
January 2018 – paperback release

An explosion of Austen!

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
Icon Books Ltd
1 Jun. 2017



Jane Austen at Home: A Biography
by Lucy Worsley
Hodder & Stoughton
18 May 2017


The Genius of Jane Austen by Paula Byrne
William Collins
18 May 2017

Four Austen tiles I’ll be reviewing

Biteback Publishing
25 May 2017
(Currently Reading)


Jane Austen: Writer in the World by Kathryn Sutherland
Bodleian Library
16 June 2017



Jane Austen: Illustrated Quotations
Bodleian Library
3 July 2017



Jane Austen: The Chawton Letters by Kathryn Sutherland
Bodleian Library
29 September 2017


And the Brontës

Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
Chatto & Windus
12 Jan 2017



The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher
WW Norton
5 Aug 2017


This is the point at which I make you particularly envious: at the end of this month my favorite Scottish host and I will be taking a journey south of the border to England, where we’ll visit various sites related to these three beloved writers. Five, actually, if you count the other two Brontë sisters Anne and Emily. Mea culpa.

When I have the full list of places we plan to visit (the Scot has that, but he’s in the other room and I cannot be bothered) I’ll post that here. Once I’ve returned, of course I’ll have photos along with excessive, likely rather purple verbiage to share.

Between now and then, I plan to finish as many of the review titles as possible. At the very least, I need to brush up on basic biographical facts about each of the ladies. I posted a few times about the Brontës last year: here, here, here and here. For Woolf, I posted most recently about her shorter fiction. Here’s a post about Woolf and the Brontës, a double-header. As for Austen, aside from some very insubstantial posts, I read Rachel Brownstein’s Why Read Jane Austen? back in 2012, enjoying it immensely.

I’m looking forward to hanging out with these literary ladies this summer, back to Victorian and early 20th century writing. It’s been too long.


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.



Speaking of Indie Authors (as in self published)


Was just cruising through my Yahoo mail when I found an article titled "The Big Reason Indie Authors Aren't Taken Seriously" from the Huffington Post:

"Several predictions have stated that 2012 will be “The Year of the Indie Author”. After all, 2011 saw some awfully big moments.

John Locke became the first indie to break the Kindle million-seller mark. Amanda Hocking, Queen of the indie vampire books, signed a ginormous contract with St. Martins Press. And The New York Times deigned to include indies on their best seller list, where every week at least one title – often more – are contained. By all indications, you’d expect that readers and traditional media alike would be wrapping their arms collectively around indie authors and their books into something akin to a big ‘ole hug.

And yet… not so much."

The article goes on from here, listing the reasons this is so:

Big Reason #1: Bad Editing

Big Reason #2: Quantity Over Quality

Big Reason #3 – The Lack of Gatekeepers

Big Reason #4 – Crappy Covers


Two big things I agree with: bad editing and crappy covers, both of which can really drive me bats. That's one reason I'm planning to start doing some freelance editing of self published books in the not-too-distant future, because I've been reviewing for a decade, and if there's one thing I know it's a good book from a bad. Or my take on that, I should say, which I can only assume is flawless.


As for the covers, well, that's another animal. I'm not sure what's to be done about that. Hiring photographers is an expensive undertaking. Ditto graphic artists. Plus, I'm not sure how much leeway there is with the various self publishing entities for one to substitute a custom cover over their stock choices but I believe that's getting a little better.

I also think the glossy covers are a bad choice, especially when coupled with somewhat generic covers. Compared to, say, the covers Vintage Books tends to produce – which are most often matte – glossy covers tend to look cheap.

All in all, I believe in self publishing as a means of getting your work out there in an increasingly competitive field. One just has to be sensible about it, not expecting a big publisher will pick up their book in exchange for millions. Amanda Hocking's a one-off. If you're self publishing with $ in mind you may as well not do so at all. On the other hand, if your aim is to see your name in print and sell a few books go for it.

I'm not set up to start the process of freelance editing just yet but that's coming sometime this year. It's a necessity for self published writers and, let's face it, a lucrative route for me, personally. I've done loads and loads of it, plus have had a finger on the pulse of publishing for a decent chunk of my life. Seems a natural extension of what I'm already doing.

But check out the article if you're interested. It's a really informative one.


Slow to the Finish, Though I Eats Me Spinach: January reading, etc…

I haven't finished one book yet in 2012. Not one. I've started a few, and made some good progress but I keep getting distracted by other books and can't finish a single one. It's getting a little frustrating, especially seeing so many other book bloggers joyously declaring they're ready to post their first – or even second, the over-achievers! – review of the year, then here's me – six days into Apocalypse 2012 without a single finish to call my own.

I hang my head in shame.


LonglongwayI'm just over halfway in A Long Long Way, Mr. Sebastian Barry's previous Booker nominee. It tells the tale of Willie Dunne, of the recurring Dunne family, and his experiences in WW I. Positively gut-wrenching stuff. The description of death by mustard gas was an agony to read. How could human beings be so cruel to each other?

It's not all horrific, thankfully, but much of it is dedicated to expressing the brutality – and frustrations – of war. Impossible not to love Willie Dunne and wish him anywhere but along the front lines. Also difficult not to feel enraged when his superior officer denigrates the Irish, putting them down as stupid for going and getting themselves killed. As if they'd done so on purpose? I could have slapped the man which goes to show you how Mr. Barry creates such emotion in – in this case – a more stripped-down example of his prose, a less-poetic book than On Canaan's Side but powerful nonetheless.

During Willie's visit home on leave it feels so easy identifying with the glory of being bathed for the first time in ages, though I've never been that dirty I assure you. Reading it made me feel the itch of the nits (I'm scratching my head as I type this!) and the relief after the scrub down by his father, while Willie stood in the tin tub shivering but enjoying the personal attention from the parent who'd always found him lacking before. Such a simple scene, really, though not simple at all from the standpoint of their fraught relationship. Having been tested and coming through one stage of the war raised the boy in the opinion of his father, disappointed as he'd been by his son's short stature and inability to prove himself strong and manly otherwise. Sad knowing it took so much to get his father's attention though Willie himself seems proud enough of the fact. 


MagnificentobsessionIn a nonfiction work for review it's the story of Victoria and Albert, specifically Victoria's obsession with death and mourning, contrasted with Albert's complete resignation he had no doubt he would die young. Many readers will find it eerie how accepting of death Albert was, though Rappaport does a brilliant job explaining reasons for it. For one, he was a German having to live away from his homeland and all his family. For another, when he married Victoria he was discriminated against for being foreign and also emasculated for his status as mere husband of the monarch, until made Prince Consort.

Ironically, it turns out he's the one who put the ramrod iron in Victoria's spine, disciplining her from a silly thing (Victoria?!) into a serious ruler. But even then he was every inch the king, though not in name. He answered official correspondence, heavily influencing the direction Britain took, necessarily using his persuasion on Victoria herself, as well.

My idea of the romance between Victoria and Albert was smashed by the reading of this book. Certainly, they loved each other, and when Albert died Victoria was devastated. Only, she was one for indulging herself in deep mourning, almost taking pleasure in its austerity, judging from her reactions to other deaths in the family. It's all riveting and shocking, not at all the story I was expecting. Fascinating stuff. During this year of the celebration of Dickens's 200th it's a wonderful addition to my reading, thanks to Library Journal!

And should you read an LJ blurb on the back of the finished U.S. edition that would be ME. The first time I saw a quotation from myself in the guise of Library Journal (individuals aren't credited) I was taken aback, I was so impressed. I told the person I was with, "I wrote this review, so I know I said this, but I don't remember it!"

So it goes as a review churner-outer. I expect I'm all over the place and don't know it. I'm too focused on what's next I seldom look back, though I may wish otherwise someday. Ah, but it will still be there now, won't it.


Bleakhouse2On to Dickens (happy birthday in a month and a day, old chap!) and Bleak House! It's a huge, huge book – weighing in between 900 + and 1,000 + pages depending on the edition – and I'm just past the middle reading it on my new Kindle Fire.

Until last night I was so proud I'd been keeping all 5,000 characters straight, then I hit a scene in which I had no concept on earth what had just happened, nor did I recognize to whom it did. I soldiered on, hoping it would come clear but then it never did after another 50 or so pages.

The remedy for that will be a quick look at Spark Notes or the equivalent, which I believe an excellent resource when you're actually reading – or have read – the primary work and have a question to be answered. Because falling behind in a Dickens novel is a serious thing, indeed.

This is at least my second read of BH, if not my third. I can't keep anything straight I live in such a muddle of books. I'm not as irritated with Esther Summerson this time around (reserving that feeling for Ada, the long-suffering fool), and far more annoyed with Richard Carstone. Mrs. Jellyby is still a nuisance of a thing I'd love to slap, and her Peepy adorable beyond words as a background character you can't help but love, the poor duck.

I just don't remember the covers of the book being so far apart,or the distance between mentions of Lady Dedlock separated so much. If this were a modern book I'd be screaming WHERE IS THE EDITOR?! but it's funny with Dickens I push through all the diversions.

But I honestly don't recall all these side-plots… The Smallweeds and granddaughter Judy, for one, though any scene featuring them is grimly hilarious. Old Smallweed is tossed around, as an elderly invalid, but the reader feels no sympathy at all for the calculating old coot. When he's pushed too close to the fire and his stockings begin to burn the reader almost wishes he'd been pushed a little closer.



Nasty old thing.

And here's a wonderful link with Bleak House illustrations in case you're looking for them and you hopefully will be someday, if not today.

So, having lots of fun with this but I'm getting a little nervous about finishing on time for the group discussion in another week or so. I read 'til I can't keep my eyes open every, single night and get through hundreds of pages but did I mention the book is VERY  LONG?


And don't even ask me what's up and coming or I'll slip into a coma. A publicist for Barry Unsworth sent me a note asking if I'll review his new one,  The Quality of Mercy, coming out January 10. Well, if I can I love to post a review right as a book's debuting and though this one's not so chunky as BH it's still over 300 pp. of thoughtful reading, with the Victoria and Albert review due January 8, no less.

Next week I'm attending a signing for Sara Levine (and three other writers but never mind that…), author of Treasure Island!!! with which I had mixed reading success. For her I'll be working up a review-y, maybe interview-y thing for local papers,  plus of course the blog. With photos, video if possible but don't hold your breath.

As if that's not enough to make a woman a raving lunatic, my library is hosting a TREMENDOUSLY PROLIFIC BIG NAME AUTHOR during National Library Month in April and I've, to date, read only one of her 20ish books. SO I WILL NEED TO REMEDY THAT. And she may be bringing along another writer, first book coming out in May, and I NEED TO LAY MY GRUBBY HANDS ON A COPY OF THAT AS WELL.

And no, that's not all that's between January and April, just all I'm willing to type.

I may not come up for air until June, during which I'll have roughly two weeks to cry piteously until time to gear up once again and read the works of NUMEROUS WRITERS I WILL BE MEETING AT BOOKTOPIA 2012 in Oxford, MS.

For all or  most of these writers my work will include much of my usual services. Of COURSE there's much joy and rapture in all my endeavors – or damned if I'd do it – but it makes my brain feel squeezy sometimes, you must understand. Occasionally it becomes so squeezy all the blood flees my brain, my head flops to the side and I stare at nothing for hours until someone comes along and pushes me over, allowing my blood to again flow freely. Then I eat chocolate and all is right with the world.

So all this is a very round-about way of saying, "Gosh I'm busy." You could have just read this last bit and avoided everything else. Makes you want to kick yourself, doesn't it?


Christopher Hitchens: 13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011




Don't believe I've talked much about Christopher Hitchens here. That's because I never felt I had all that much to say. I read his God is Not Great a couple of years ago and found it rather a personal rant instead of the even-handed argument I'd hoped it would be. That's the first time he came onto my radar and my impression was what an angry, angry man.

Since then I've read the odd column here and there, and since his diagnosis with esophogeal cancer I paid him more attention, reading part of his Hitch-22, eventually buying Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens on CD – something I rarely do as it's so cost-prohibitive. But I felt this was something I really wanted to take time with, to pay attention to this volatile man who certainly had no lack of opinion, to learn more about a man I feel sorry I neglected in my reading.

I know bits and pieces about the man, that some of his opinions dovetailed with my own and others diverged wildly. I respect the journalist he was expressly because of his fervent, even rabid opinions, his inability to keep his mouth shut, his bravery in saying what he thought rather than bowing to political correctness. In some respects I wish I were more like him, though I follow that up quickly with "but not in ALL."

Summing up, I feel the loss of him. I was sorry to hear of his passing and seeing the news come through Twitter in the wee hours of this morning kept me awake 'til almost dawn. Honestly, I had the impression he would have more time on this earth. Alas, not.

Wherever he is now, if in fact he's anywhere at all, I hope he's found his peace, so richly deserved.


“Hatred, though it provides often rather junky energy, is a terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning and keeping you going. If you don’t let it get out of hand, it can be canalized into writing.”

– Christopher Hitchens


Daily Hitchens

Vanity Fair


NY Times