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
Virago
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.

 

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)

Purchases:

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.

 

the new world by andrew motion

newworldmotion

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (July 14, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804138451
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804138451
  • [Amazon Vine program]

In The New World, former British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion continues the tale begun by RL Stevenson in his novel Treasure Island, serialized in a children’s magazine between 1881 and 1882. Main characters Jim Hawkins and Natty Silver, daughter of pirate Long John Silver, wash ashore along the coast of Texas. Lone survivors following a shipwreck and subsequent attack by Indians, Jim and Natty are taken prisoner, force marched to an Indian settlement where they’re held for weeks, the threat of execution by evisceration hanging over their heads. Escaping with the mesmerizingly shiny silver necklace worn by Chief Black Cloud, the pair spend years on the run, meeting up with adventure upon adventure, each on the heels of the last.

Jim and Natty are given a romantic relationship, though one kept just shy of carnal consummation, fitting considering the period in which the original novel was written. Natty’s given a feisty nature, a strong mind of her own and characteristics worthy of her pirate ancestry. The two are strong leading characters made multi-dimensional via Motion’s vivid descriptions of their lives spent in captivity, during the months in which they feared for their lives.

For fans of adventure tales, Motion’s sequel is a great read, paced well. The characters are well developed, both the main and supporting cast. The chapters are episodic,  somewhat sing-song up and down, in nature and rhythm, reminiscent of both Stevenson’s original work as well as Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, a similar work in spirit, set in 19th Century America. Like the latter, the book has the feel of a road novel, a series of trials and tribulations experienced as the pair meet up with a widely diverse cast along the way from Texas to their eventual attempt to make it home to England by sea.

The book has a distinctly American feel, Motion capturing the spirit of the wild frontier perfectly as Natty and Jim make their way. Likewise, he balances the menacing Indian characters with more welcoming, kindly tribes, careful to present Native Americans in a fair light. More importantly, the balance isn’t forced but comes about naturally in the course of the story. Had he made political correctness his priority, the novel would have suffered for it. Fortnately, he doesn’t. Rather, he lets the story flow of its own course.

It could be considered a negative that the story’s quite predictable but that’s the nature of novels like these. You know the heroes will prevail, because they always do. To counteract this, Motion inserts a few twists in the relationship between Jim and Natty, helping mix things up a bit. The course of true love does not always run smooth. If it did, how much less interesting the tale would be. Overall, it’s a great adventure tale, ending with the clear intent Motion will continue the series.

For me, the story was a bit too formulaic, not really my sort of novel at all. I chose it to review out of curiosity, to find out how well a poet laureate could write a continuation of an iconic RL Stevenson novel. Turns out he does it quite well, more than equaling the task. It’s no strike against him this just isn’t my sort of read. Thus, the minimal animation in this review.

He did a good job; for an episodic novel it works. If this is your cuppa, you’ll find it warm and flavorful.

a replacement life by boris fishman

areplacementlife

 

[ARC via Amazon Vine program]

Slava Gelman is a young writer trying to get a foothold on the slippery slope from low-ranking nobody to published writer, with a byline in Century, a high-profile magazine where he works. So far achieving little respect, his ideas largely overlooked, he’s mired in frustration. If he’s to succeed, he believes he needs to break free of his barely off the boat Russian family, moving forward into modern-day Manhattan and the new lifestyle he yearns to emulate.

Upon the death of his much-loved grandmother, his adorable grandfather – a golden-hearted man thoroughly lacking principle in all matters related to money – convinces Slava he should turn his writing skills to the family’s advantage, forging a letter of restitution for his grandmother’s suffering during the Holocaust, in order to receive money from the German government. Along with the request, Slava finds himself reeled back into the bosom of the family, adding to his conflict and misery.

What makes the whole endeavor a bit less smarmy is his grandmother just missed a legitimate opportunity to apply for restitution; she missed the letter which would have qualified her by just a few days. The implied question is: is it more immoral forging a letter to get money from a government formerly responsible for the killing of thousands of Jews, or to allow this same government to get away with not having compensated the family in any way – not that money can buy back what suffering takes.

Moral or not, Slava writes the letter. In so doing, he gets far more than he ever bargained for, which you kind of have to figure or there’d be no story, would there?

Fishman’s book takes on a very serious topic, managing to sidestep the most serious offense through use of humor, mixed with a cast of characters you can’t fail to love .  Will his treatment of forged Holocaust restitution offend some readers or make Slava heroic? Tough to say.

Though I am not Jewish, I am a human being whose heart hurt reading Slava’s invented stories. Not having read other reviews of the book, I can’t say how he fared with other readers. I was borderline, finding a few more gruesome details a little too graphic for comfort. But then, as is always the case in reading fiction written by a writer representing a culture foreign to the reader, I feel a bit reluctant speaking out against his treatment. I have no notion how it feels to have been savaged at the hands of the Nazis. What I know comes from history books, films and other literature I read. My heart breaks on their behalf but I will always be an outsider.

For the most part, I found Fishman’s balance between horror and humor even. The specter of very real suffering was in the background throughout the book; it isn’t as if he moved from funny to savage with no segue. His own Russian Jewish heritage came through strongly, his heart clearly affected by the story he chose to tell.

A Replacement Life reads similarly to the books of Gary Shteyngart, funny by use of understated, ironic humor. There’s a good chance if you enjoy one, you’ll enjoy the other writer.

Russian Jewish humor has a distinctly unique inflection. Plots often verge on the madcap, heavily using old word vs. new world contrast to create distinct generational separation in characters, lending itself well to this type of humor. Older family members groan and hold their heads over new world changes in the young, invoking guilt in an attempt to bring the younger generation back to the old ways. Of course, they generally fail. Once having achieved freedom, who wants to trade it back?

Loved the book. Highly recommend.

 

From Acknowledgments:

“My first thanks is to my grandmother. She really was better than all of us.

Then to my grandfather. A friend once said, “You’re smarter than him, you’re more enlightened than him. But both of us can fit inside his left nut.” Hard to Argue.”

 

 

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (January 20, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062287885
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062287885

Publicist: jane.beirn@harpercollins.com

 

 

Adeline by Norah Vincent

adeline

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • $ 23.00

 

The degree of difficulty involved in writing Adeline must have been great. I can’t imagine how long Vincent spent reading bios about Woolf, her letters and diaries. I’m deeply impressed by the breadth of scholarship involved. In her notes, she cites her sources, which are extensive, if not complete. Then again, a complete bibliography of books about Woolf is a life’s worth of reading, much less time spent interpreting all the facts, forming them into a work of fiction. Or “faction,” maybe. Has anyone used that term to refer to fiction disguised as fact? Let’s say they haven’t and that I’m breaking new ground. No one else will care but I like the thought I’ve CREATED SOMETHING, unlikely as it is.

[I won’t tell if you won’t. And I’m pretty sure you don’t care either way.]

What Vincent has done in Adeline (The title is Virginia Woolf’s actual first name. She went by her middle name.) is take Woolf’s life, novel by novel, breaking it into acts as if in a play. Starting in 1925 with her inspiration for To the Lighthouse, triggered by time spent soaking in the bath (I really don’t know if this is accurate), the author expands the story to include what was going on in Woolf’s life, and within her circle of friends, at the time she was writing each book. Vincent pays much attention to Virginia’s relationship with her husband, Leonard Woolf, using his point of view to explore the mental illness she suffered – presumed to have been bipolar disorder or manic depression. In Virginia’s shoes I believe Leonard’s actions would have felt annoying. They show how much he cares but his occasional coddling, as depicted in this novel, would have driven me absolutely bonkers. Was he this protective? I never got the impression he was so overbearing. And was he so overly-dramatic? He dealt with this for a very long time. It’s not as if any of this was new to him. After a while, even the most unusual of situations will become “normal.”

He was always watchful, always on the lookout for her inevitable tumbles into depression. Knowing the signs her extreme downturns were returning, he needed to be certain she got what was considered appropriate care. Of course, what was considered appropriate then is far from modern-day treatment, using a combination of drugs to control the chemical imbalances in the brain. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds and anti-psychotics, regulated by a psychiatrist, are often used in a “cocktail” to keep the mood – and racing mind – on an even keel. Drugs, paired with talk therapy, can go a long way toward controlling bipolar disorder. For Woolf, taking away all stimulants was her “rest cure.” Because mania brought on her obsessive writing, she was kept away from it. Likewise, reading, very closely associated, needless to say. It must have been a living hell for her. No wonder she dreaded the inevitability of  it.

Bipolar disorder is thought to be a dormant condition in many, brought out by a triggering event. So, not everyone predisposed toward bipolar will exhibit symptoms. There are also two different forms: Bipolar I and Bipolar II. Not being a psychiatrist, going by what I know to be true, I think it’s more probably the latter that afflicted Virginia Woolf. Bipolar I is the almost solely depressive form. Manic stages are present but greatly muted, in comparison to Bipolar II. Mostly, Bipolar I is a deep funk, often tending toward suicidal impulse. Bipolar II, however, is the one most people identify as the “true” form, usually unaware it’s not the only possibility. People with this condition exhibit incredible highs, during which they are manically productive and feel indestructible, then fall very far into depression, often needing to be hospitalized to keep them from harming themselves.

In Woolf’s case, we can fairly safely presume the event which released her bipolar was the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her half brother, George Duckworth.  I wanted to slam the book down when Vincent wrote dialogue between Virginia and Leonard, in which Virginia so casually mentions the abuse. The way the two referred to it was wooden and unnatural, even taking into account Leonard was well aware of her past. It was a lazy shortcut device used to inform the reader of the horrors Virginia underwent.Trying to recall how Woolf referred to the events with Duckworth, I don’t remember her speaking of it casually. It’s a struggle to recall her talking about it at all, even in her diaries, and letters to her beloved sister Vanessa, much less while she’s watching Leonard weeding the garden. After that section I read with a very guarded disposition, no longer completely trusting the author. For the record, this wasn’t all that far into the book.

Beyond that, I have issues with Vincent’s stylistic choices, her tendency to stay too much within Virginia’s head. There’s too much potential for misinterpretation, for creating thoughts she never had, leading the reader to believe she was a far different person than she was in reality. I’ll admit, I tend to feel protective of Woolf, sensitive to how she’s portrayed. Already feeling distrustful certainly didn’t help.

It’s also an annoyance that the language used is so formal, the prose over-written. It would have been better pared down to minimalism, in my opinion. It would have made for a much better book without prose verging on, sometimes crossing into,”purple” territory. Never mind the high intellects found in the real-life players of this drama; it would have been perfectly excusable to skirt that, opting for s more simple style, focusing on the story and not so much overly flamboyant conversations. It needs less blow by blow, more showing and less telling. As written, it was difficult keeping focus. Every few paragraphs something would sound “off” to me, reminding me I’m reading a book and not immersed in the lives of the Bloomsbury Group. This is the opposite of what you want to find in a novel, any disconnection from what’s happening in the book. Novels should be as seamless as possible. It’s crucial the reader lose herself in the story, not wander off to think about shopping lists or what’s for dinner. Fiction is an alternate reality, with emphasis on the real. Even in the case of fantasy and science fiction, a story  needs to feel real, as in possible. If I’m reading a work of horror, I need to feel frightened. If it’s a dystopia, I should feel unnerved and worried, uncomfortable. I never lost myself in Adeline.

There may be a narrow readership for Adeline: those with a casual curiosity about Woolf who aren’t interested in more than a surface grasp of her life, as well as an introduction to the major figures in her peer group. What’s less fortunate is these readers may feel as though they’re doing a bit of wading to get to the meat of it, that the characters have personalities so big and overbearing it’s overwhelming. Using such a loud style does no favors to readers unfamiliar with Virginia Woolf. Rather, it’s off-putting.

There are so many nonfiction books out there about Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, if a reader wants to get a sketch of her life. Hermione Lee’s is definitive but too long for the casual reader. Instead, Nigel Nicholson’s short Penguin Lives edition, titled simply Virginia Woolf, would be my recommendation. Nigel Nicholson was the son of Virginia’s one-time lesbian lover, Vita Sackville-West and uses:

 

” … family archives and first-hand experience for his brisk, dutiful biography. For the young Nicolson, Woolf first appeared as a lively and amusing visitor. Not yet famous, to Nicolson she was like “a favourite aunt who brightened our simple lives with unexpected questions.”

– Publishers Weekly

 

woolfnicholson

 

Overall, the effort gets points for the idea but loses most of its value in the areas of stylistic choice and execution, which, well doesn’t leave it with much. Try as I did, I could not abide Adeline. Perhaps I’m too predisposed to finding fiction based on the life of Woolf to be irritating (it took two times for me to grow to love Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, not that I’m comparing the magnitude of two books). I cannot recommend the book.

 

[Free Review Copy: Amazon Vine program]

Why I can’t review your book.

An aside

 

I get so many queries I have to address this publicly.

I won’t consider reviewing or promoting self-published books at this time, though I’m sure some of you have written knock it out of the park novels, nonfiction, poetry, etc. No doubt I’m missing incredible writing but I am, as do we all, facing a finite life.

The great thing about self-publishing is anyone can write and publish a book. The abomination about self-publishing is anyone can write and publish a book. The big houses with overworked, highly skilled and moderately paid (never enough, in my opinion) editors still turn out a lot of pure crap, mostly to please the masses. Self-published books don’t have the benefit of either overworked, highly skilled and moderately paid editors who’ve made it to the head of the pack to smooth and improve prose, nor graphic artists to design appealing covers and fonts and such.

I come in only once books have been through these steps and then only when I can take on new projects. For the foreseeable future, all I can handle are professionally published books I can review in professional publications. I’m also working on my own stuff.

Keep writing, keep honing, keep submitting. If nothing else, writing a full-length novel is an accomplishment in itself. It’s more than 90% of aspiring writers ever do. Hell, I haven’t managed to do it yet.

Promote the hell out of yourself. Pitch bloggers who review self-published books. Take copies to local indie shops willing to buy a copy or two and give it a chance. When you hit it big you can write and tell me I missed out. I can take it.

I can’t review your self-published book but I’m flattered you asked. I truly am.

 

‘Twas the week of Thanksgiving

fancyline7

thanksgivingrockwell

fancyline7

Welcome to the week of Thanksgiving, a time when we Colonials observe the gratitude our ancestors felt for having produced a bumper crop of food to sustain them through the upcoming winter, thanks largely to the help and advice of the Native Americans, without whom we’d have been screwed. As some versions of history have it, we invited our Indian allies to the feast. At least those we didn’t kill by disease or violence or whatever.

Sorry, just being a curmudgeon. Truth is, all great civilizations were built on the backs of indigenous people, who were overtaken by the stronger and more advanced, just as they took over the civilization before. It’s how we got where we are today. We can choose to see that as positive or negative but this most basic explanation of history is neither. It just is.

If you’re observing Thanksgiving, I hope you have a fan-wonder-fattening day. I know I will: turkey, stuffing (mother in law’s HEAVENLY recipe), cranberries, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, mashed potatoes with gravy, something green and nutritious and other miscellany. Then dessert. God Bless America!

Wait, that sounded curmudgeonly, too. Thanksgiving’s true intent is to celebrate things we’re thankful for, above and beyond the craptacular nature of everyday life. If you look hard enough, there must be something you’re grateful for in your life. Keep looking. Check behind that door. In the back yard, maybe? Could be it fell behind the dresser.

Need more time? Take all you need. You have until Thursday. If you go beyond that I can’t be responsible for the consequences.

What am I thankful for? Kind of a personal question, isn’t it?

Well, since you asked:

* Aside from a few joint issues, all my major muscle groups appear to be operating normally.

* Ditto my organs, minus the joints. Organs don’t have joints.

Do they?

* Though I’m still out of work, every interview gets me that much closer to my next job. Theoretically, at least.

*  Doctor Who’s latest episode and David Tenant’s guest appearance on same. THANK YOU, GOD.

* Doctor Who will make its next appearance THIS CHRISTMAS! Calloo! Callay!

* Featuring David Tennant. THANK YOU, GOD.

* Sebastian Barry’s novel The Secret Scripture is BEING MADE INTO A FREAKING MOVIE! You are a genius, Mr. Barry. More of the world needs to know that.

* Books. Glorious books and the fact they exist.

* A roof above my head, food in my kitchen and clothing on my body. That last one is a source of gratitude to many.

* Health and all that. Whatever.

* Another year on its way out, the prospect of a fresh, new year to come. In which I’ll make avowals so I can break them in the first quarter of the year. Wait. That’s not so good.

* Other stuff. I’ve lost interest.

Let’s talk books:

fancyline7

patanddick I recently finished Will Swift’s biography of Pat and Richard Nixon, an intimate and revealing portrait of the relationship between the controversial president and his wife.

The media painted the Nixons as a cold, distant political couple, essentially two mannequins living together for the sole purpose of representing a nuclear family. What they didn’t realize was  Pat was the backbone of the marriage, the matriarch who knew when to push her naturally introverted husband and when to back off. I question if there would have been a President Richard M. Nixon if not for his discerning choice of Pat as his wife. It’s one thing he got right. One of the only.

I reviewed the book for Library Journal and it will be published in early January, 2014. If you’re into American presidential history, the Watergate scandal or just curious about the private lives of the Nixons you cannot, trust me, go wrong.

I had no particular interest in the couple or the era but wound up riveted. All this took place before my time, or before my awareness, and nothing about the scandal interested me all that much. It’s not quite like the Kennedy family, which has been beaten to death so thoroughly I have no desire to read anything about them, but it was close.

My knowledge of Nixon consisted of the cartoonish “I am not a crook!” But it’s all so much more compelling than I knew. If I read no other book about Nixon, I’m satisfied with this one. And I probably won’t read another one.

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Have you read works by novelist Jesse Ball? If not, you need to. I recommend The Curfew to get you started.

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I’m getting into Silence Once Begun, for review at New York Journal of Books. Ball’s an experimental writer who’s not too “out there” for the average reader of literary fiction. It’s easy to compare him with Murakami, since everyone knows him, but Jesse Ball is less surreal. He’s Murakami light, more appealing to general readers, who may get overwhelmed by Murakami.

The plot of this new novel is promising. A bland Everyman falls in with the wrong sort of people, one of whom is a man who dares him to sign his name to a confession of a crime. He, believing it’s a joke, agrees. Little does he realize, the crime in question is very real.

Release date: January 28, 2014.

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The number of review and freebie copies I’ve received of late is staggering and unprecedented. I’ve gotten some every week for years but never this many in such a short period. Among them, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s Art as Therapy. The book’s huge and gorgeous. Huge as in over-sized, more than thick. Good stuff.

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What is art’s purpose? In this engaging, lively, and controversial new book, bestselling philosopher Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong propose a new way of looking at familiar masterpieces, suggesting that they can be useful, relevant, and – above all else – therapeutic for their viewers. De Botton argues that certain great works offer clues on managing the tensions and confusions of everyday life. Chapters on Love, Nature, Money, and Politics outline how art can help with these common difficulties – for example, Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter helps us focus on what we want to be loved for; Serra’s Fernando Pessoa reminds us of the importance of dignity in suffering; and Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus teaches us how to preserve and value our long-term partners. Art as Therapy offers an unconventional perspective, demonstrating how art can guide us, console us, and help us better understand ourselves.

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The NBAs. I knew I wouldn’t have time to read them; more’s the pity I made the effort acquiring all the fiction. Though, in my favor, two were review copies. I was able to buy The Flame Throwers when it was a cheap Kindle special and paid Amazon prices for The Good Lord Bird (the winner) and Bleeding Edge.

And actually read none of them, yet.

Congrats to James McBride on his win!

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For the nonfiction, I never made it beyond Jill Lepore’s wonderful bio of Jane Franklin. And congrats to George Packer for his nonfiction award win!

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On my Kindle I’m reading The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing.

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Reviews for it are stellar and well deserved. Laing analyzes alcohol usage by Hemingway, Cheever, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, John Berryman and F. Scott Fitzgerald, both explaining the causes and effects of dependency as well as how their writings – journals and letters as well as fiction – reflect their addiction.

Very revealing and I’ll have more to say about this soon. Right now it’s keeping me up nights, one of the more riveting works of literary criticism I’ve read in a while. I know… Riveting and literary criticism in the same sentence?

NERD ALERT.

A few years ago I swore off reading literary criticism, my rationale being I barely have time to read primary texts, much less criticism. I’ve exempted books like this, about the authors and their works, in the context of a shared experience. I’m just not one for reading a whole book about one, single book. That’s kind of a lot of work and, with few exceptions, not worth it. I ain’t exactly getting my doctorate.

It will be published December 31, 2013. Thanks so much to NetGalley for my review copy.

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Woe is (not) me

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Just a sampling, loves.

Ah, bookish bookish love… These are a few review copies I have lying around the room, those which aren’t scattered further afield. Ideally, I like to keep the bulk of them in the same room – our family room, where the “main” computer is. Realistically, dream on.

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball, as well as This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash (copy forthcoming) are upcoming review selections for The New York Journal of Books.

Heart of Darkness (for review here) is a new edition illustrated by the amazing, unparalleled Matt Kish (Moby Dick in Pictures). He has done it again, this time with Conrad’s classic:

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WOW.

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Jay Parini’s Jesus: The Human Face of God, Lavery’s The Conquest of the Ocean and The Best American Travel Writing, ed. by Elizabeth Gilbert, are Amazon reviews.

And the little birdie that sits atop them? It’s someone’s ceramics project I found for sale at Goodwill. I collect the cast-off pottery of others. I think it’s lovely and it saddens me to see it sitting on a shelf. Handmade things are to be loved and cherished, such is the duty I gladly perform.

In eBooks, I have a staggering number courtesy of NetGalley. Twenty or so, I believe. Of all of them, perhaps the one I most lust for is John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist.

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     For the last fifteen years, whenever a novel was published, John Freeman was there to greet it. As a critic for more than two hundred newspapers worldwide, the onetime president of the National Book Critics Circle, and the current editor of Granta, he has reviewed thousands of books and interviewed scores of writers. In How to Read a Novelist, which pulls together his very best profiles (many of them new or completely rewritten for this volume) of the very best novelists of our time, he shares with us what he’s learned.
From such international stars as Doris Lessing, Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, and Mo Yan, to established American lions such as Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, John Updike, and David Foster Wallace, to the new guard of Edwidge Danticat, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and more, Freeman has talked to everyone.
What emerges is an instructive and illuminating, definitive yet still idiosyncratic guide to a diverse and lively literary culture: a vision of the novel as a varied yet vital contemporary form, a portrait of the novelist as a unique and profound figure in our fragmenting global culture, and a book that will be essential reading for every aspiring writer and engaged reader—a perfect companion (or gift!) for anyone who’s ever curled up with a novel and wanted to know a bit more about the person who made it possible.

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Archetype by M.D. Waters came from nowhere:

 

Emma wakes in a hospital, with no memory of what came before. Her husband, Declan, a powerful, seductive man, provides her with new memories, but her dreams contradict his stories, showing her a past life she can’t believe possible: memories of war, of a camp where girls are trained to be wives, of love for another man. Something inside her tells her not to speak of this, but she does not know why. She only knows she is at war with herself.

Suppressing those dreams during daylight hours, Emma lets Declan mold her into a happily married woman and begins to fall in love with him. But the day Noah stands before her, the line between her reality and dreams shatters.

In a future where women are a rare commodity, Emma fights for freedom but is held captive by the love of two men—one her husband, the other her worst enemy. If only she could remember which is which. . . .

The first novel in a two-part series, Archetype heralds the arrival of a truly memorable character—and the talented author who created her.

 

Well, somewhere but I know not of it. A new book, a new author. Why not?

Have a lovely evening. Read! Read! Read!

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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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  • Hardcover: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; First Edition edition (October 15, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316074314
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316074315

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“Reason is no match for desire: when desire is purely and powerfully felt, it becomes a kind of reason of its own.”

The Luminaries

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“It’s a lot of fun, like doing a Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board. Some readers will delight in the challenge, others may despair. I went both ways: always lost in admiration for this young New Zealander’s vast knowledge and narrative skill, sometimes lost in her game, wishing at times for more warmth, delighted by her old-school chapter headings (“In which a stranger arrives . . . ”  “In which Quee Long brings a complaint before the law . . . ”), puzzled by her astrology, Googling everything twice and three times, scratching my head, laughing out loud, sighing with pleasure at sudden connections, flipping back pages and chapters and whole sections for rereadings, forging ahead with excitement renewed.”

– Review: Bill Roorbach, The New York Times

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I made it through this year’s Booker Prize winner but it was exhausting. The book’s a brick, packed with characters, the plot twisting and turning on itself so many times I didn’t even try to keep count. I didn’t keep all the plot lines straight, a fact that may make other readers feel a little better. The reviews I read revealed the major relationships to watch and I heeded their advice. Aside from that, I managed to follow a couple others and that’s as well as I could do without keeping a score card. If you can honestly say you made it through this book without nearly losing your mind, I salute you. In my case, I highlighted passages madly, thinking I could always come back to them, trying to make sense of things. Trouble was, things weren’t conveniently truthful nor linear.

In short, my method didn’t work so well.

The Luminaries is set in New Zealand, during the late 1860s gold rush, similar in many ways to the California rush of the 1840s which I suppose makes sense. One gold rush in a largely unpopulated and wild area is equivalent to another, I imagine. I find the gold rush era compelling and it’s certainly a fantastic setting for all manner of depraved and troubled characters. Catton took full advantage of that, creating such a cast of characters I’ve personally never encountered outside the novels of Charles Dickens.

What a wild, wild ride…

The setting of the book is unrefined, populated with prostitutes and prospectors, bankers and opportunists. Chinese workers perform the hard work for a tiny percentage of the profits. Murders aren’t uncommon and jailers are so busy prisons are in desperate need of expansion. Back-stabbing, suspicion and any vice you can name run rampant, including very high-profile drug addiction.

As the tale opens, a new arrival named Walter Moody enters the scene, finding a group of twelve men gathered in a hotel for the purpose of trying to get to the bottom of a murder, as well as a disappearance, of two local men. As for the rest, I can honestly say it’s far too complicated for me to dissect, as stories are told and disproved, alibis declared and found to be lies. In the end there is a trial. Witnesses testify to things the reader could never have guessed, while in the midst of it all everything is confused, turned on its head. I couldn’t explain it all if you paid me.

The very heart of the book actually contains a romance, if you can digest that. The young whore, Anna Wetherell, is in love with… No, I won’t tell, not that it really gives much away, in the grand scheme of things. I could reveal a few dozen plot points that would still have no chance at all of spoiling the plot of this book. It’s just… Oh good God. It is what it is.

The question remains: was it a worthwhile read? Tough to say. Had it not won the Booker, and had NetGalley not provided me with a copy, I wouldn’t have finished reading it. As it is, I picked it up and put it down innumerable times, when it’s a book best read in long sessions. Note taking is highly encouraged. I don’t know how one can keep track of anything, otherwise. I don’t have time for such extensive scholarship, not when it’s a modern novel. A classic, okay. But The Luminaries isn’t time-tested. It just exhausted me.

If you enjoy 800+ pages worth of convoluted puzzles – and unreliable characters – you may find this the god of all such books. It isn’t without merit, by any means. It contains lots of fun passages, many tongue-in-cheek humorous moments, as well as some which are poignant. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, etc. The characterization is staggering, the handling of so many plot lines impressive to the extent I can’t even think of a word to describe it. Masterful, that does the trick.

The fact the author was 22 when she wrote this book will make your head explode. If you’re a writer, it will send you away sobbing. It’s just unnatural what Eleanor Catton managed to pull off. No one should be able to create such a symphony from this wild cacophony. But she did. I bow to her, while at the same time I admit it was all far too much for me or my enjoyment.

As author Jay Parini puts it:

“All really good books shatter their generic origins, becoming a thing unto themselves. But rarely has this axiom held more firmly than in Eleanor Catton’s thrilling – in every sense – second novel. The sheer weight of the narrative might seem daunting; but dismiss that. She is among the finest of storytellers, drawing us forward through a labyrinth of lives, all of them converging in ways you could never easily imagine. I didn’t want this novel to end.”
—Jay Parini, author of The Last Station

Unlike him, I wanted it to end, before my brain exploded. My mantra: please let it end, please let it end… It’s a singular experience you can only understand if you attempt it. Let’s leave it there.

I’m a bit befuddled as to why the Man Booker committee chose it, and still think the honor should have gone to the incredibly spare prose of Jim Crace, but there’s no accounting for it. I guess it was the mammoth accomplishment of the book, which I still maintain was far, far too much. Earlier I compared the work to Dickens but I love Dickens and find his complicated plots satisfying. The Luminaries? Not quite so much.

But congratulations, Eleanor Catton. You managed something that will keep the literati busy a long time. Well done for that.

 

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