March in Review: Much more reading, many more books. That’s more like it.

I had faith March wouldn’t let me down, unlike my crappy January and February. Lie: I had no such faith, but told myself things could hardly go further south. And there were no Olympics, no television distracting me. The TV reverted to its usual function: background noise for napping and covering the surface of my TV stand, while looking impressively large.

Size matters, friends.

Of course, March brings out my Irish. It’s also my birth month, meaning I have an excuse to binge buy books. This year, March threw in a nasty virus, gratis, getting me three days off work in which I was too sick even to read.

Still, I managed to fit in a few.

I’d hoped to take a short vacation in March. SPOILER: that didn’t happen. I was too ill, no desire to leave the warmth of my home and comfort of my sofa. It’s still cold here in Chicago. Distressingly so. On this April 1, it’s the coldest it’s been in years, hovering around freezing.

Will spring ever come. I’m beginning to wonder.

Books Read March 2018:
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (for library classics book group)

I’ve been putting off reading this one since the upset wrought by the first few minutes of the Kubrick film. Not a fan of random violence and rape, I wrote this off as not for me.

It’s about a young man literally addicted to violence, the leader of a pack which wreaks nightly havoc on an English town. The first part was difficult to read, partly for the made-up language Burgess creates (which wore on me) and constant, gratuitous violence. The second part is much more interesting, once main character Alex is finally arrested for his crimes, and re-programmed, for lack of a better term.

The best thing I can say about ACO is I finished it. Not a fan.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

The lovely Jesmyn Ward has written another moving story set in Mississippi, this one about a family ripped apart by the slow death of the matriarch from cancer. Told from shifting perspectives, including that of the ghost of a young black boy lynched decades ago, it’s a short and rich novel.

It deserves to be shortlisted.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

This one, good God. Absolute brilliance, beginning to end. It’s been a while since I’ve read a modern book I believe has the staying power to become a modern classic. Ruby is it and then some.

The story, the brilliant and sensuous language, the characterization and use of magical realism… It’s huge in scope, so difficult to summarize.

The title character is born a beautiful young girl, her life of poverty dooming her to prostitution starting from a very early age. Having escaped the South for a privileged life with a relative in New York City, upon the death of a woman she’d loved she makes the fatal mistake of returning home. Ruby loses her mind, becoming feral, as she’s again pulled back into sexual abuse and violence.

Love enters, and Ruby resists, unable to believe anyone could truly love such a damaged, broken woman.

I can’t recall the last time I finished a book and wanted to turn back around and re-read it immediately. If I weren’t engaged in other projects, I’d have done so.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

Schmidt’s book is a novelization of the story of possible murderess Lizzie Borden, she of the axe murders of her father and step-mother.  Generally, I don’t care for historical fiction, but this was an exception. What bothers me about it is the inability to know what’s true and what’s imagination. I’d far rather read non-fiction, getting to the truth of the matter.

 

The Notorious LB

 

I enjoyed Schmidt’s approach, telling the story from different perspectives. And while the case remains unsolved, she lets the reader know what she believes truly happened. It’s what I’ve always believed, as well, minus a few suspicions on the details.

Though an enjoyable read, I’d be surprised if this one makes the shortlist.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

Merchant shipman Jonah Hancock, one of his ships lost on a voyage, is handed a small, shrivelled “mermaid” as recompense. His only choice to help re-coup some of his losses is to display it as a curiosity, in PT Barnum fashion.

In the course of its travels, it lands in an upper class whorehouse, at which Mr Hancock meets the lovely courtesan and former mistress of a nobleman: Angelica Neal. Struck by her beauty, he’s lost.

Later, in order to win her love, she demands he bring her another mermaid, this one genuine. Believing it impossible, she believes she’s seen the last of him. When her fortunes change, however, Mr Hancock becomes much more desirable.

Ultimately, the creature Mr Hancock presents her with induces a terrible melancholy on everyone associated with it, begging the question what is the price to be paid when you get everything you think you want.

Not a candidate to win the Women’s Prize by any means, it’s an overly long book I nearly gave up at the 3/4 point. It meanders, interesting lesser characters never fully fleshed out. I finished it to find out what happens, and because I’d ordered it from Ireland and paid enough in shipping I didn’t want that to be for naught.

 

Books Bought March 2018:

In addition to a couple from the Books Read in March list (See What I Have Done and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock), there were these:

Happy by Nicola Barker (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (for review)

And these:

And, for my birthday:

 

Nothing new read for the Muriel Spark project, unfortunately, but I’ll resume that in April. I thought I owned a copy of The Bachelors – next up chronologically – but can’t find it anywhere. Hesitant to buy more books after my slutty indulgence this month, I may have to skip over it for the next, bite the bullet and order it, then read it out of sequence.

I hate doing that, but needs must. One last search of my library, then I’ll do what must be done.

 

Such was my March. I’m happy with what I managed to read, definitely happy with the stream of new books. April needs to be a less expensive month. I went a little crazy, and need to re-coup. Still searching for that elusive sugar daddy to support my habit. Ah, but rare as mermaids are they.

April will hopefully herald spring, lifting my mood. I’d be lying if I said the first quarter of the year hasn’t brought me down. Still too early to plant flowers in the Chicago area – we’ve had frost as distressingly late as May, in years past – a warm-up, at the least, would be more than welcome. At least the days are lengthening, so there’s that. Sorry not to be more perky. I just don’t have it in me at the moment.

Spring’s hope’s eternal.

 

writing sabotage: ask the master!

 

 

I can tell you all about writing avoidance, ducking deadlines a specialty. Years spent working my arse off building creds lead to the point I’m at now, largely taking for granted review books still flowing in unabated, despite my sharp fall-off in actual production.

Ding dong! Another package, toss it on the pile. Trip over it for a month, open it, exclaim oh, cool! Throw it back down.

Someone out there believes I have the talent and influence to matter; that’s not always enough to keep me going. Is it my depressive tendencies – oddly well-controlled of late – keeping me glued to the sofa, curtains closed, Netflix blathering away while I doze and wake on the sofa?

TV: Are you still watching Stranger Things?

ME: DON’T JUDGE ME! Claws around for remote, hits OK, rolls back over.

I’m out today, in public at a charming local coffeeshop, sitting next to me an uncorrected proof of a novel shipped to me in Scotland. Its publication date in October, it’s not as if I’ve let months slip past, but I was in a position to review it pre-pub and let that deadline slip right on by.

When you review pre-pub, very occasionally you can score a cover blurb, or at least an advertising quote. I’ve seen my name on jackets, bookmarks and promotional posters. It kicks ass.

But it takes effort. E-F-F-O-R-T: something I’ve avoided with great success most of my life.

I’m fortunate to work for publications with fluid submission dates. I can lazily toss over a review of a book a month after publication and fear no retribution. As long as the piece is well-written, all’s write with the world.

Write with the world. SNICKER.

(It’s abundantly clear why editors are still willing to work with me.)

 

I’m not exonnerated from having such a lax approach toward deadlines by grace of kind editors. In the case of this review piece it may be fine, but my creative writing sits and simmers from months to years. I could have had a novel finished in the time I’ve spent lolling on the sofa – at the least, a solid first draft of one of the four or five half-hearted stabs at fiction flopped on the sofa that is my hard drive, digging around for the remote in a Property Brothers coma, giving up on me long ago.

Applaud me that I’m working today, but don’t give me a pass. Don’t encourage me, no matter how charmingly rumpled. The sofa pattern in relief on my cheek is no substitute for a big chunk of manuscript that hits the table with a THUNK.

I WANT A THUNK. I WANT IT SO BAD.

Deep down in my heart of hearts, I do.

I don’t know a single writer without avoidance issues, though a few are disgustingly disciplined compared to me. I smile to their faces, but give them the finger behind their backs. Goddamn you.

I’m petty. It’s a failing. But I’m not alone. One time I read a piece written by a braggy writer crowing about how she’s up at 5, goes for a 500-mile run then home for a nutritious breakfast of real foods that grow in the ground and not a laboratory, showing up at her computer writing – not so much as checking her effing email WHAT KIND OF MONSTER DOES THAT – around the time I’m generally rolling over, reaching my arm back to give my alarm the finger – pretty much the only stretching I do all day.

Though in a national publication any freelancer would sell their best friend to write for, it had NO COMMENTS.

NO.

COMMENTS.

Every other writer in the world effectively gave her the finger by virtue of shunning. No one wanted to give her the satisfaction of either praising her industry or admitting themselves incapable of such revolting dedication.

Take that, bitch.

Today, I pat myself on the back. I’m producing. I don’t expect to get as much done every day as I have today, but striving for a modicum of effort beyond zero is no bad goal.

Atta girl, Lisa. Way to earn that ass on the sofa time.

TV: Why aren’t you still watching Stranger Things?

Not today, temptress. Not today.

 

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.

 

What I’m reading, what I’m writing

“A philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if a woman who’s wholly alone occasionally talks to a pot plant, is she certifiable? I think that it is perfectly normal to talk to oneself occasionally. It’s not as though I’m expecting a reply. I’m fully aware that Polly is a houseplant.”

  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

 

On the reviewing pile.

Having recently signed on with the Glasgow Review of Books, I’m patiently awaiting the arrival of my first assignment. It’s a reprint of a “forgotten” writer’s autobiography, a writer I’ve never heard of but found so intriguing I was happy to say aye.

Reading and more reading.

Meanwhile, I’m engaged in lots of other literary pursuits, natch. I’m working on a review of Ever Dundas’s remarkable Goblin, as well as a pending interview with this gifted debut novelist. Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – the IT novel of Summer 2017 – kept me enthralled throughout. I have Muriel Spark’s The Comforters simmering on the back burner, and just started Jenni Daiches’s Borrowed Time. On the Kindle there’s, a review copy of Rushdie’s upcoming The Golden House, featuring a satisfyingly sly portrait of a certain orange president.

Daaaang this was a good read.

Author events wise, Gail Honeyman’s appearing in Edinburgh this week. You don’t need to ask if I’m planning to go, because I’m planning to go.

As for July, current plans are to hit the road late in the month for Austen, Woolf and Bronte country. My son’s visiting the UK for a couple of weeks in early August, then the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Stellar lot of authors this year, but I haven’t picked my must-sees. Best fast-track that.

My reading plate’s full to overflowing, covered in comfort food. It’s a big ol’ buffet full of mashed potatoes, meatloaf and macaroni and cheese that isn’t flourescent orange and doesn’t come from a box. And is that chocolate cake I see on the dessert table?

I think it is (galloping noises).

Incoming! New books on the shelf this week.

When the dollar rose against the pound, I took advantage. Now that it’s inevitably fallen very ouchly, post-UK election kerfuffle, I need to consider cutting back on book purchases.

[Need. Such a vague word, isn’t it? Food, water, clothing, shelter… Got those, but do we not have other needs, less about pure survival, but nevertheless crucial?]

 

But it feels so right

 

Graeme Macrae Burnet climbed atop Mt. TBR after last year’s Man Booker Prize featured his His Bloody Project on its shortlist. If you’ve not heard of it, trot out and find it. I bought The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau because it’s his first novel. I’m planning to read everything he’s written, partly because I’m eyeing the Bloody Scotland literary event in September, and partly because he’s a writer just breaking out into the big time. He’s also the author Ian Rankin recommended when I asked which new Scottish authors should I make sure to read.

The Shore by Sara Taylor, Hotel World by Ali Smith, and Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood are three books consisting of inter-connected short stories recommended to me by trusted reading friends. It’s a side project of mine, an interest in studying how writers use this particular framework. They all sound fantastic.

Am writing.

In my free time, I’ve been working on a fiction project of my own, and is it ever slow going. It’s not the first fiction I’ve written, but working on it reminds me how bleeping hard the craft truly is. And the easier prose looks, the tougher it was to write. A writer can’t keep that from allowing a steady flow of absolute shite in the all-important first draft. It’s awful, oh god it’s awful, but it’s supposed to be.

I apply every bit as much severity to what I write as I do the writing of others, and expect the same scrutiny from fellow reviewers. More, actually, because I am an unabashed reading snob, expecting a very high level of quality in published fiction. I jealously guard my reading time. It’s limited, and I refuse to squander it. An advocate of struggling writers, every time I see another sub-par writer published I know dozens more far more talented have been slighted. It makes me very, very angry. I hope other reviewers feel the same, judging accordingly.

It’s a blustery day in Scotland. No better time to curl up and read.

Until next time, happy reading!

 

I don’t want to clean house for the party

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I’m chatty of late. But I need something to do, to stop my fidgety widgety. I also want to avoid cleaning house and take my mind off  the creepy feeling I get when my piece (stop it) is back in the hands of an editor, after corrections. Know that almost unbearable feeling of exposure when someone is looking at you and you know it, without looking? Your hair stands on end, dead fingers lightly trace your spine. Worse, when you feel someone looking at you but when you turn there’s NO ONE THERE…

BOOGA BOOGA!

And I write for the Chicago Tribune? Children, let this be a lesson. Keep bothering people and, eventually, something good will come your way. Or, every editor in the world will get so sick and pale with grief that thou, her plague, art far better published, so you’ll shut the fuck up and leave her alone.

If I publish this will you stop? Yes? It will run on Sunday. TAKE YOUR DAMN CHECK, BITCH!

Judging from the debilitating cringing feeling I’m suffering today, I don’t know how I’ve had anything published. Writing short, snappy reviews for Library Journal and Booklist takes lots of time but is so formulaic it doesn’t feel nearly as personal (nice English!). Right now I’m suffering such paranoia, which I guess is natural taking such a big leap from professional reviewing to a byline in the third biggest newspaper in the country. OHJESUS. Maybe I should be more cringy about my old windbag blog and unfortunate habit of over sharing. You’d think, but no. Writing a review for a MAJOR NATIONAL NEWSPAPER is much, much worse. Much worse partially because I play free and easy (would you quit?) with grammar rules here and have to sit up straight when someone’s paying me. I don’t like the Oxford comma for instance. The, Oxford, comma, for, instance. if it were up to me thered be no punctuation hell why stop there screwthedamnspacesbetweenwordstoo

mymotherisafish

Look at the depths to which I’ve been reduced. Gee, thanks, Chicago Tribune. Thanks for RUINING MY LIFE!

Oh, hell. I really have to get back to work. No one should have to see the place like it is. We’re probably in violation of several village codes and maybe I can keep us out of jail if I pick up a little, wipe off a bit of dust. Because they’re watching me, the village. (If not the village, my goddamned PRESIDENT.) I can sense it…

Omygod!

THERE IS NO ONE THERE…

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Michiko Kakutani am I.

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Only a cocky, snobby brat would crow she immediately recognized the framework supporting a contemporary, Pulitzer-winning masterpiece of a novel as the bones of one of the novels of Dickens, right? A cocky, snobby brat or someone who’s read one hell of a lot of literature. Who majored in literature, thank you very much and whose favorite Victorian novelist is Charles Dickens: the self-same reader who whiled away summer days engrossed in the works of Mr. Dickens. Not Danielle Steel, Dickens.

Am I admitting this to brag? A little but I believe I’m entitled. It shows I know my stuff, it gives my opinion weight and adds credence when I throw that weight around.

Why the obnoxious outburst? Because I saw all this in The Goldfinch before I read the review of the novel written by the inarguably toughest literary critic alive today: Michiko Kakutani, the Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic for the New York Times, who fills every published writer’s heart with dread. She is the hard ass of hard asses. She does not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. She is my heroine, unafraid to say what she thinks, going against the grain and not caring one iota what anyone thinks of her. People hate her viscerally but she commands respect. Hers is the first review I seek out upon publication of a new novel, though she doesn’t review much or very often. She has earned the right to write as she pleases. That, too, commands respect.

Someone needs to have the ovaries to stand up to all the false praise thrown around by reviewers, about books that are sub-par. Finishing and publishing a novel isn’t special; finishing and publishing a brilliant novel is. Not just that, it’s damn near impossible. So when Michiko Kakutani likes a book it is rare as hell. And she loved The Goldfinch. She loved it and immediately recognized the Dickensian plot, as did I. For one brief, glorious moment my mind clicked with hers. Don’t think for one moment I didn’t cheer in a loud and suitably obnoxious way.

To be honest, I don’t have the huge ovaries of a Michiko Kakutani. I’m a sucker for too many charming, beautifully-written works she would scrape off her shoe in disgust. I don’t always agree with her; sometimes she angers the hell out of me.  The takeaway isn’t that I’m brilliant or the greatest book reviewer on earth. Please. It’s a strong lesson in learning to trust myself more, staying true to my opinions. I’m not talking about filleting a book without hard examples backing up my opinion. Rather, it’s the opposite. When my head and heart tell me a book is sub-par, I can’t be afraid to say so. Nevermore. Not on your life.

My goal isn’t to become the reviewer writers fear. Until the Chicago Tribune sent me a contract, my visibility wasn’t as great as it will be from now on. I’ll have a byline now. My opinions won’t be couched under the auspices of the venue for which I’m reviewing. Before, all my review quotes were attributed to Library Journal, Public Libraries, etc.  Now, I stand as myself. I will be in print, in a nationally recognized newspaper. What I say will be in my name. Instead of feeling cowed by this, hesitant to say what I mean instead of kowtowing to writers with great reputations, I’ll be fair but every bit as tough a critic as I am in my mind. Tiptoe around a popular writer? I don’t think so. I’ll be honest and forthright.

No worries, Michiko. You can rest easy. I’m late to the party and the room’s already packed. When it’s all over, and I’ve hung up my laptop, I will be happy with what bit I’ve accomplished. A nobody born in the Deep South, raised in an abusive home, convinced of my own incompetence and worthlessness, it’s almost inconceivable I’m not drunken and homeless. Even dead. Reviewing for the Chicago Tribune? I would never have dreamed of it, not in a million years. Through it all I’m still standing and in my daydreams those who knocked me down will see that. Know that I am here despite you; ultimately, what you subjected me to only made me stronger. It took a while and the path has been uphill and crooked. I’m not yet where I want to be but know I will not hesitate to go Michiko Kakutani on your asses, without even a glance backward. You could not be more irrelevant.

If I seem over-confident to anyone, you don’t know me and you couldn’t be more wrong. I’m learning confidence, despite my life experiences. I’m learning to trust myself, without needing a Pulitzer-winning critic to back me up. I will screw up sometimes, no question, but I won’t ever stand down. One thing I know is great writing. I know it when I see it and feel it in my heart. So thank you, Michiko Kakutani. I’ll take it from here, though I appreciate the backup.

But damn, that did kick some serious ass.

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