A time for grief, a time for rage: On Salman Rushdie

I finished Elizabeth Strout’s Booker longlisted Oh William! this week and set aside my Friday evening to write a blog post about it, but the vicious attack on Salman Rushdie has sapped my energy. I’m too mentally exhausted to face the prospect of dissecting another underwhelming read.

Raise your hand if you’re tired of shit things happening, if you’re also digging out from under PTSD. The vast outpouring of grief and rage today has been the only saving grace, it’s proven people care very deeply about both Rushdie and intellectual freedom. This hits hard. I guess it’s good I was working while it unfolded. I saw the headline and read the breaking news, but I can’t afford to break my concentration, as a fraud investigator. All I wanted to do was keep refreshing my feed, which I should know by now is the opposite of what’s good for me mentally. By the time I flopped down on the sofa after work, mentally exhausted, Rushdie’s agent had just come out with the grim news: he’s on a ventilator, likely to lose an eye, and there’s damage to his liver.

Frankly, I’m afraid to hit refresh any more.

The unleashing of fundamentalist rage.

My first exposure to Salman Rushdie was probably when most people became aware of him, upon publication of The Satanic Verses. An undergrad working toward my B.A. in English literature, I wasn’t well-versed in a lot of contemporary writing. My specialty was Victorian literature, but when the news broke that a writer’s life was being threatened by religious extremists who found his work offensive, it set me off as much as you’d think it would any idealistic 22-year old. I bought the book immediately on general principle, but put it aside. I was busy taking exams, which morphed into graduation, then finding a job, and planning a wedding when I was far too young, but that’s a cautionary tale for another time.

I still haven’t read The Satanic Verses. I don’t own that copy of the book anymore, so I ordered it this evening, along with a reading copy of Midnight’s Children (I’ve put aside the edition Rushdie signed for me), and a collection of his essays called Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020. Over the winter, I’d planned to read something long and engrossing. My original though was Bleak House, or maybe the essays of Montaigne.

After today, I’ll be reading The Satanic Verses.

I don’t want this to be an in memorium read. In the reality I’m choosing to create, Salman Rushdie will recover in safety while I finally make time for a long, luxurious celebration of the book he’s refused to apologize for, in recognition of his defiance and refusal to be silent. I’m not 22 anymore; I’ve spent the intervening years between then and now earning my MLIS, writing about books, and becoming outspoken about my belief in freedom of expression. It’s not in my power to heal Salman Rushdie, but what I can do is read his work and talk about it to anyone who’ll listen.

If I were religious, I’d pray. My church is St. Liber: I read, and hope for better days.

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!


travels with salman: an event to remember




2015 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize


Saturday, November 7, 2015

UIC Forum, Main Hall AB



It’s long been a dream of mine to meet Salman Rushdie but I’d begun to think it wasn’t meant to be. There’ve been several near misses, events I couldn’t make for one reason or another, so when I saw he was coming to Chicago to receive the 2015 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, hell if I was going to miss that. Not this time.

Tickets were $ 20, general admission, so I had a romantic idea I’d get there early, squat in front and bask him in rays of my adoration. Didn’t quite work out that way. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t as good as I’d built it up in my mind. In my head he’d be right there above me, onstage. Looking down he’d see one glowing face, beaming love and adoration, the rest of the audience obscured. His heart would melt, observing the positive flow of light and love exchanged between us. At that moment he’d realize this is the most important moment of his life…

Yeah. No.

It’s about an hour from my place way out in the suburbs to the UIC area, in good traffic. Leaving home at 8:00 for a 10:00 event provided me with a safe window, no worries. Things were good, no delays I didn’t expect. So there was construction. So isn’t there always. Three-quarters of the way down, I started hearing this flapping noise, something slapping against the side of the van. The sound of something rapping, flapping, knocking at my van door.

Only this, and nothing more.

I felt paranoid, convinced a thing of great import had broken free from the nether regions of my van, and that the car had begun beating itself to death in a frenzy. My engine would die shortly, I just knew it, leaving me spinning out of control, only to die in a fiery crash never having met Salman Rushdie. Vile fate!

Turns out, it was the belt of my trench coat, flappy flapping merrily, as I sped down the expressways. The belt of my trench coat sticking out the driver’s side door. Not too embarrassing, now, is that. Knowing how I love making serious fun of idiots when this happens to them, Karma bitch-slapped me in return. I guess it’s only fair. And it could have been far, far worse.

Fortunately, I made it to UIC with time to spare, found a parking garage on Maxwell Street, reached the venue and took the best seat I could find, behind all the VIPS and press. Not bad. Plus, there were screens. Never mind my camera couldn’t handle the distance; I could see just fine.

If you haven’t heard Rushdie speak, he’s inspirational beyond what you may already imagine. He spoke on freedom of speech, on his writing and magical realism in general, on books and reading and how young people today are doing just fine on that front, thanks. They are reading and they’re reading a lot. Plus, the book is going nowhere; the internet has not, will not kill it.

He was inspirational, positive and painfully honest about how much religious fundamentalism and hatred have hurt him, how terrifying it was to be slapped with a fatwah, how much impact that had on his life. To this day, is he safe? The answer, as well as can be determined. So he lives his life, he makes appearances and fights for freedom of speech wherever and whenever he can.

It’s for this the Chicago Tribune awarded him its Literary Prize.

I recorded lots of snippets from the roughly hour-long interview he had with Chicago Tribune editor Bruce Dold, snippets I’m still uploading to YouTube.  Because it’s time consuming, and because I want to get this post uploaded soon, I’m going to go ahead and finish those as I can, then post separately. I may even type up the transcripts. We’ll see how I feel.

One thing about the event I’m left to puzzle about is the almost complete lack of interest most attendees showed in having Rushdie sign their books. I zipped straight to the signing room, cutting ahead of most of the crowd by use of a door hardly anyone else seemed to notice, so I made it there very quickly. Most people  just walked right out the door, not bothering to attend the signing. Do they meet Booker Prize winning, humanitarian icons so often they can’t be bothered greeting them in person? Or maybe the prospect’s daunting, maybe people shy away. I don’t know. But I wasn’t about to miss that. I didn’t drive all the way down to the city, belt flapping in the breeze, to listen and run.

I was bound and determined to talk to this man, wringing every bit of experience from the event. I may never meet Salman Rushdie again. Who knows? Besides, I wanted that autograph and wanted it badly. I wanted it in Midnight’s Children, the Booker of Bookers.




And get it I did.

Just as I wasn’t about to squander my brief moment with Mr. Rushdie, I wasn’t about to miss taking an illegal picture or five. The security guards told me to knock it off but I didn’t care. It was my plan all along to play goober, taking photos until told otherwise. It’s easier to ask forgiveness after than permission before, an old adage that’s inarguable. What were they going to do, take my phone and stomp on it?


I had my moment in the sun with Rushdie. In the course of the interview, he mentioned the sorts of wordplay he’d enjoyed with Amis and Hitchens and all that group, told the story of how they played with the names of famous novels, making them “less than great,” things like The Good Gatsby, Toby Dick, etc. Wanting an in with him so badly, something I could say to have his attention for three seconds if no more, while he was leaning over to sign my book, I leaned over, too, and said:

“The Selfie of Dorian Gray…”

Friends, HE LAUGHED.


Does it get better than that? Because I don’t think it does.

What a day. What a stellar day. I heard Salman Rusdie speak about truth and literature and what matters in life,  saw him presented with an award and even talked to him, if ever so briefly. Flapping trench coat belt aside, to me it’s all pretty priceless.

Afterward, I may have gotten a bit lost navigating the city but my beautiful Chicago capped it off brilliantly, just as I figured it would. An event worth waiting for, in so many ways, and a bucket list wish fulfilled.

Thank you Chicago Tribune, UIC and The Unabridged Bookstore for a memory to last a lifetime.



And, lovely city of Chicago, thanks for blocking my GPS signal, so I’d get lost, yet still manage to find  this.

Lyric Opera, Chicago

Lyric Opera, Chicago


Sears Tower - No, NOT Willis

Sears Tower – No, NOT Willis

Right now, at this single moment, all’s right with the world.