Stop the world…

 

temporarygentleman

 

It’s here… My copy of the UK edition of Sebastian Barry’s The Temporary Gentleman has arrived, via Amazon.co.uk! I could have kissed the mailbox, I was so thrilled. Lucky for the postman I didn’t catch him delivering the mail or I could have had a nasty situation on my hands.

Despite my very best efforts – and I can be quite a pest when the situation calls for it (ahem) – I could not beg, borrow or steal an early review copy. Not for love or money, though I did beg Faber & Faber to loosen their restriction on allowing US reviewers access to an ebook copy, which wouldn’t have bothered me quite so badly if they’d have replied to my email, rather than disregarding it completely. (Admittedly, they had already rejected me via NetGalley, where I get access to so many ebook review editions). So I had to wait impatiently for the UK release, which I’d have done in either case, if I’d read it early or not. C’est la vie.

With other reviews pending, plus a full work and event schedule, I still must squeeze in as thorough a read through TTG as possible. It’s a difficult time but I’m not sure any time isn’t. There’s always something. I’ll start this evening and will probably become so absorbed I won’t resurface until forced to sleep.

My current bedtime read of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has been going on several weeks now, mostly because I cannot rush such a gorgeous (and huge) book and I am besotted, positively intoxicated with a new-found infatuation with Donna Tartt. However, TTG is short, though densely packed. I should be able to finish the first run-through in short order and once I have, deliver my own opinions.

But calloo, callay! IT HAS ARRIVED, AT LAST.

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The Year of the Irish. Or the Quarter, at Least.

Known not so much for my timeliness as my obsessive nature, I’ve filled April, May and possibly June with all manner of Irishness. I did not bypass the month of March. Nay, I observed St. Pat’s with the consumption of a full half pint of Guinness and a resounding Slàinte, a tribute to at least a sliver of my ancestry, as well as admiration for the art and literature of Ireland. Plus, Guinness tastes good.

April 10: Colm Tóibín

Booker-nominated, all-round overachieving Irish writer Colm Tóibín is scheduled to speak on ‘The Irish Renaissance’ at Elmhurst College. Has Irish anything ever been out of fashion? To me, no, but I’d attend an event of any sort for the pleasure of hearing Mr. Tóibín hold forth.

BREAKING NEWS! I am in the process of interviewing Colm Tóibín. Watch this space for much, much more on Mr. Tóibín .

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May 12: Sebastian Barry

I am attending a reading/signing/pilgrimage with Sebastian Barry, the Bard of Ireland. You may recognize the name from one post out of every dozen or so I have ever posted. Of all the thousands of words I’ve written here, his name may have been mentioned with greatest frequency. Greater even than all articles, prepositions and participles put together.

He is once again gracing our shore on the occasion of the publication of his latest novel, The Temporary Gentleman,  book eight in what’s become a series of novels devoted to ancestors on both sides of his family. Must you read them in order? Not necessarily.

 

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More on that here:

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I can’t wait for the May publication of this book, sorry. I’ve pre-ordered the UK edition, as well as grovelled to his publisher (Faber & Faber) for an ebook copy of the ARC. So far no word but I assure you I’ve thrown myself into it with as much vigor as you would expect from me. At worst, the publication of the UK edition is April 3. With international shipping, I should get it roughly a day before publication in the US, because that’s just how things work for me.

 

secretscripture

In more Sebastian Barry related news, I previously mentioned his novel The Secret Scripture is being adapted for the screen. When I wrote to wish him a Happy New Year the screenwriter on the project had just died, inconveniently enough. However, they found another gentleman to take up the task and it seems filming will begin in June.

La!

Bit more info on the film.

And did I mention Vanessa Redgrave’s one of the stars? Because she is.

 

ACADEMY-AWARDS

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Aaaaaand. I may go to Ireland in June. Or May. But probably June.

Must run! Good catching up with you.

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Interview with author Sebastian Barry (Instant Replay)

Bringing this over from Bluestalking at its Typepad location, replaying it due to the impending St. Patrick’s Day holiday. I have at least one other interview with a genuine Irish writer. You may bet your shamrock I’ll repeat it here by or before Monday.

This interview was a highlight of my life, not just my blogging life. Meeting him was an experience that took my breath away but this opportunity to engage in an interaction – be it via email or no – certainly qualifies as a life event that shall live in infamy. My infamy, that is.

Without further ado, here it is, my interview with Sebastian Barry:

(Sebastian Barry!)

 

You grew up in such a rich storytelling environment, learning more than most about your family’s history – especially contrasting here in the States, where we’re more “mixed breeds,” often without any clear ethnic heritage at all. Do you believe you would have chosen writing as your vocation if you’d grown up without such moving stories as incentive to pass on your ancestors’ tales (which tell so much about the history of Ireland)?

 

The strange thing is, my family was full of both stories and silence. Pregnant with silence. As a child there were versions of things, in particular my mother’s rather ferocious retelling of her childhood, available. My maternal grandfather also told me stories, since we shared a room in my childhood, about his travels all over the world, and indeed he kept an accounts book in which he always intended to write his autobiography – but how could he, when there was so much to keep secret? So even around these voluble stories there was a silence, or silences – very interesting silences too. So as I child was a short-trousered spy among them, trying to piece things together from clues, lies, admissions, and absences. Not very consciously maybe, but it was all such a tangle and a muddle there was an instinct to try and make sense of it. The other ingredient was, the sense of a prohibition on talking about many things. Why did my other grandfather never go home to Cork? What happened to those great uncles that disappeared? My painter grandfather taught me to paint, and I went to his house once a week religiously, but in all that time he never mentioned his own mother to me – because much to his shame she had been a Protestant. Awful in many ways, but also, wonderful, for a child at least – the mystery of it, and the strange anguish in these grown-up people, whom I adored unconditionally.

So in answer to your question, I could never have been a writer if I had been a true believer in all those stories – it was the silences that decided it.

 

 

The literature of the southern U.S. – I’m thinking of William Faulkner in particular – bears a strong resemblance to much Irish literature, due in part to several historical similarities: enduring/surviving civil war, the oppression/prejudice of some groups by those more powerful, the breaking away of part of the country from another (temporarily, in our case) and the resulting violence afterward in the way of racial prejudice (partly religious there): lynchings here, bombings there. etc.. Have you read much literature of the American South and do you have any thoughts on similarities between the two?

 

I haven’t read enough of the literature of the South (I confess) but I have taken a sort of tumultuous interest in the history of it – and you are right, our own Irish history is written there, mutatis mutandis, which I think primes the Irish reader to feel the full measure of the sorrow that rises from it. The binary madnesses of our species, religion against religion, race against race, gender against gender, are tragically universal, aren’t they? And written on the wind everywhere.

But Faulkner, aside from being a Southerner, is the prime instance of the writer going his own way. That in fact is what Seamus Heaney said to me years ago, when I was about 30. ‘You have to go your own way.’ It’s very simple, very true, and very hard to do.

 

 

The intensity of your writing, and the reading experience for your readers, is so great. Does it exhaust or upset you writing such personal material and do you sometimes find yourself needing to separate (i.e., take a break from) your work before resuming writing?

 

The disreputable fact is I love to work, especially when I get off the bank and finally into the river, and the boat heads away on the current of a book – even if the inevitable waterfall is to be heard far off in the distance. I take long breaks because I am old enough to realize that one of the sins of writing is to force it, despite what some people say about writing every day. You can’t run all day, day after day, and you can’t write like that either, unless you want to write ‘on sticks’ as it were. So it goes for me anyhow. What I am interested in is the fact that at some point a book makes itself possible, and I am so grateful for that that it is somehow immaterial to me if the subject matter is ‘dark’ –  there is no dark in the writing of it, somehow, or at least the light shone by sentences seems benign, and language itself maybe is a form of courage.

 

 

In the current literary world newspapers are eliminating or reducing space dedicated to books and literary culture, while blogging about the same subjects seems to be filling that gap formerly owned by professional journalists. Some doing a better job of it than others. Do you see that as a negative, i.e., should we be mourning the loss of more structured, professional reviewing, etc.? (Please ignore that I have a blog and don’t worry about offending.)

 

The greatest change in my writing life, of about 33 years, is the new availability of the thoughts of your readers. The sense of readers out there, beyond your ken, and yet existing in remarkable intimacy to you. No book is read communally, the reader is usually alone, in whatever place he or she reads. And yet there is a community of readers for a book, a sort of constellation of lights on an unknown map, each lit point representing a reader. And thanks to blogs and sites like goodreads, a writer if he so desires can hear the thoughts of this mysterious, deeply human, deeply personal and private demographic. It isn’t that it will make the writer write for his or her readers, but that he or she will write now for the first time among those readers – in their midst as it were, in a way that didn’t quite exist before.

Otherwise there are still the places that review, despite the shrinkages of space. What has partly compensated for that is the availability of all the reviews online. Previously, an individual bought The Times and what the Times said was the whole story for that particular person, and so on. So in a way, there is a sense that there are more reviews. Australia, US, Canada, and all the translation territories… So reviews do still dominate, strangely enough. And it is necessary to have that, it is as old as Greece and older. But maybe in the final analysis reviews are for readers, not writers.  Maybe when the writer reads a review of his own work, in that instance he mutates, becomes a reader. Because the source of books, the well of a book, is not to be found near that ground. Then there is also academic criticism, another creature altogether, most usually written by someone who has a chosen love or regard for the work being written about. And curiously enough, I think as far as I can see, many blogs work at that level, as if there is a hidden academia of interest, empathy, and enthusiasm, called the blogosphere. This is the new dispensation, and I think all in all it confers a blessing on writers.

 

 

It’s ubiquitous to ask about your own personal reading. How much reading time are you able to fit in and what have you read lately that you’d recommend?

 

I read like a tramp travels. Instinct, weather, where the wind blows me. I have about fifty books on my worktable at the moment, about bomb disposal, gun-running in Africa, all sorts of arcane things. I sometimes imagine in my mind’s eye, as I order yet another obscure title, the bookseller in some far away place, packaging up the book he or she thought would never be sold. That he or she had placed bets on would never be sold. ‘The Wonders of Modern Engineering’ (1927) for instance, which just arrived today… Otherwise I get quite a few galleys and try to read them religiously, because to write a book is a very hard, unlikely achievement bordering on the miraculous, and sometimes indeed crosses over into the very heartland of the miraculous.

 

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Sebastian Barry.

 

Sebastian barry5

List of works

Poetry
  • The Water Colourist (1983)
  • The Rhetorical Town (1985)

 

Fiction
  • Mackers Garden (1982)
  • The Engine of Owl-Light (1987)
  • The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998)
  •  Annie Dunne (2002)
  • A Long Long Way (2005)           Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize; winner of Costa Award and James Tait Black Memorial prize
  • The Secret Scripture (2008)    Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize
  • On Canaan’s Side (2011)           Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize

 

Plays
  • The Pentagonal Dream (1986)
  • Boss Grady’s Boys (1988)
  • Prayers of Sherkin (1990)
  • White Woman Street (1992)
  • The Only True History of Lizzie Finn (1995)
  •  The Steward of Christendom (1995)
  • Our Lady of Sligo (1998)
  • Hinterland (2002)
  • Whistling Psyche (2004)
  • Fred and Jane (2004)
  • The Pride of Parnell Street (2008)
  • Dallas Sweetman (2008)
  • Tales of Ballycumber (2009)
  • Andersen’s English (2010)

Interview: Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry

You grew up in such a rich storytelling environment, learning more than most about your family’s history – especially contrasting here in the States, where we’re more “mixed breeds,” often without any clear ethnic heritage at all. Do you believe you would have chosen writing as your vocation if you’d grown up without such moving stories as incentive to pass on your ancestors’ tales (which tell so much about the history of Ireland)?

The strange thing is, my family was full of both stories and silence. Pregnant with silence. As a child there were versions of things, in particular my mother’s rather ferocious retelling of her childhood, available. My maternal grandfather also told me stories, since we shared a room in my childhood, about his travels all over the world, and indeed he kept an accounts book in which he always intended to write his autobiography – but how could he, when there was so much to keep secret? So even around these voluble stories there was a silence, or silences – very interesting silences too. So as I child was a short-trousered spy among them, trying to piece things together from clues, lies, admissions, and absences. Not very consciously maybe, but it was all such a tangle and a muddle there was an instinct to try and make sense of it. The other ingredient was, the sense of a prohibition on talking about many things. Why did my other grandfather never go home to Cork? What happened to those great uncles that disappeared? My painter grandfather taught me to paint, and I went to his house once a week religiously, but in all that time he never mentioned his own mother to me – because much to his shame she had been a Protestant. Awful in many ways, but also, wonderful, for a child at least – the mystery of it, and the strange anguish in these grown-up people, whom I adored unconditionally.

So in answer to your question, I could never have been a writer if I had been a true believer in all those stories – it was the silences that decided it.

The literature of the southern U.S. – I’m thinking of William Faulkner in particular – bears a strong resemblance to much Irish literature, due in part to several historical similarities: enduring/surviving civil war, the oppression/prejudice of some groups by those more powerful, the breaking away of part of the country from another (temporarily, in our case) and the resulting violence afterward in the way of racial prejudice (partly religious there): lynchings here, bombings there. etc.. Have you read much literature of the American South and do you have any thoughts on similarities between the two?

I haven’t read enough of the literature of the South (I confess) but I have taken a sort of tumultuous interest in the history of it – and you are right, our own Irish history is written there, mutatis mutandis, which I think primes the Irish reader to feel the full measure of the sorrow that rises from it. The binary madnesses of our species, religion against religion, race against race, gender against gender, are tragically universal, aren’t they? And written on the wind everywhere.

But Faulkner, aside from being a Southerner, is the prime instance of the writer going his own way. That in fact is what Seamus Heaney said to me years ago, when I was about 30. ‘You have to go your own way.’ It’s very simple, very true, and very hard to do.

The intensity of your writing, and the reading experience for your readers, is so great. Does it exhaust or upset you writing such personal material and do you sometimes find yourself needing to separate (i.e., take a break from) your work before resuming writing?

The disreputable fact is I love to work, especially when I get off the bank and finally into the river, and the boat heads away on the current of a book – even if the inevitable waterfall is to be heard far off in the distance. I take long breaks because I am old enough to realize that one of the sins of writing is to force it, despite what some people say about writing every day. You can’t run all day, day after day, and you can’t write like that either, unless you want to write ‘on sticks’ as it were. So it goes for me anyhow. What I am interested in is the fact that at some point a book makes itself possible, and I am so grateful for that that it is somehow immaterial to me if the subject matter is ‘dark’ –  there is no dark in the writing of it, somehow, or at least the light shone by sentences seems benign, and language itself maybe is a form of courage.

 

In the current literary world newspapers are eliminating or reducing space dedicated to books and literary culture, while blogging about the same subjects seems to be filling that gap formerly owned by professional journalists. Some doing a better job of it than others. Do you see that as a negative, i.e., should we be mourning the loss of more structured, professional reviewing, etc.? (Please ignore that I have a blog and don’t worry about offending.)

The greatest change in my writing life, of about 33 years, is the new availability of the thoughts of your readers. The sense of readers out there, beyond your ken, and yet existing in remarkable intimacy to you. No book is read communally, the reader is usually alone, in whatever place he or she reads. And yet there is a community of readers for a book, a sort of constellation of lights on an unknown map, each lit point representing a reader. And thanks to blogs and sites like goodreads, a writer if he so desires can hear the thoughts of this mysterious, deeply human, deeply personal and private demographic. It isn’t that it will make the writer write for his or her readers, but that he or she will write now for the first time among those readers – in their midst as it were, in a way that didn’t quite exist before.

Otherwise there are still the places that review, despite the shrinkages of space. What has partly compensated for that is the availability of all the reviews online. Previously, an individual bought The Times and what the Times said was the whole story for that particular person, and so on. So in a way, there is a sense that there are more reviews. Australia, US, Canada, and all the translation territories… So reviews do still dominate, strangely enough. And it is necessary to have that, it is as old as Greece and older. But maybe in the final analysis reviews are for readers, not writers.  Maybe when the writer reads a review of his own work, in that instance he mutates, becomes a reader. Because the source of books, the well of a book, is not to be found near that ground. Then there is also academic criticism, another creature altogether, most usually written by someone who has a chosen love or regard for the work being written about. And curiously enough, I think as far as I can see, many blogs work at that level, as if there is a hidden academia of interest, empathy, and enthusiasm, called the blogosphere. This is the new dispensation, and I think all in all it confers a blessing on writers.

 

It’s ubiquitous to ask about your own personal reading. How much reading time are you able to fit in and what have you read lately that you’d recommend?

I read like a tramp travels. Instinct, weather, where the wind blows me. I have about fifty books on my worktable at the moment, about bomb disposal, gun-running in Africa, all sorts of arcane things. I sometimes imagine in my mind’s eye, as I order yet another obscure title, the bookseller in some far away place, packaging up the book he or she thought would never be sold. That he or she had placed bets on would never be sold. ‘The Wonders of Modern Engineering’ (1927) for instance, which just arrived today… Otherwise I get quite a few galleys and try to read them religiously, because to write a book is a very hard, unlikely achievement bordering on the miraculous, and sometimes indeed crosses over into the very heartland of the miraculous.

 

Review: A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

 

Longlongway

 It had to happen eventually. Though I was determined to read it slowly, once I hit the last quarter there was no putting it down.

A Long Long Way is slowly paced. Not as in oh my God when will this thing get going, as I found opined on another blog written by a reader struck, initially, by an unfortunate episode of dubious taste.

Think of lying back in a boat, reaching over the side trailing a finger in the water, wearing Edwardian dress and holding a parasol to protect  milky white skin. Of course, if you're male you may wish to make substitutions. You'll be rowing the boat so the lady may laze, reposing comfortably upon cushions downy soft. Because a lady neither breaks a sweat nor exerts. She is better suited to daydreaming, occasionally sighing gently.

Now that we have that settled.

I've mentioned already how easy it is to sympathize with Willie Dunne, the sweet young man sent off to fight in the fields of Belgium while his heart is back in Ireland with his love, Gretta of the green eyes. It's wrenching witnessing horrors through Willie's eyes and difficult knowing such a large part of his motivation for serving is the need to impress his father, because his son is not manly enough for his taste. Doesn't make one feel inclined to sympathize much with the man, even after his speech about having been a loyal policeman putting his life on the line as Ireland's beginning to split apart at the seams. But dear God things shift so cruelly by the end.

Though the plot is certainly attractive and keeps a due amount of tension it was for me far more about absorbing the language. I swear, this man's tax returns must be more romantic and poetic than the average love letter. Each time I open the book I tell myself I'm going to figure out the formula for how he does this but each time I'm so pulled in by his magic I forget I'd even had an agenda.

I know he does it by use of long, lulling sentences and keeping that slow pace mentioned above. But there is action and that's when any idea of analysis slips away. It's a time of war. Men are alternately being blown to bits and desperately seeking solace, living for weeks in filthy, sometimes flooded trenches with no food or water for days. And through it all Sebastian Barry manages that incredible flowing prose I'd know anywhere. I believe I may admire him for it, too.

I don't believe I need tell you the plot because really it's all here. Willie Dunne does his duty with a mixture of bravery and raw fear. There are friendships and losses, misery followed by brief furloughs. Back home are his sisters, his policeman father and his love, Gretta. And he misses them terribly when allowed the luxury of thinking beyond basic survival. Ireland is on the brink of civil war before WW I interrupts but the rifts have started and there is violence in the streets, part of which Willie's father finds himself in the midst of, his life and those of his comrades on the line. All the time Willie is away he awaits word from Gretta, and yes I assumed she must be a horrible person when the letters are from his sisters, instead. There's nothing more I can say, really, without giving away too much.

For this book Sebastian Barry was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. You may recall how I felt when his On Canaan's Side didn't make it to the Shortlist in 2011 and I would rather not go into my feelings on the Booker in general, thanks very much, though many congratulations to Julian Barnes. However, the stars did align for The Secret Scripture (the first of his books I read), winning him both the Costa and James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which are proof some judges on this earth know their business quite well. And did I mention A Long Long Way was chosen for Dublin's One Book One City read in 2007? Because it was.

Overall I guess what I'd like to say I've already said. I love many styles of writing from the florid prose of Dickens to the stripped down minimalism of much contemporary fiction but Sebastian Barry is on an entirely different plane. And you may not agree, that's fine. Though I'd rather not speak to you if that's the case.

Next, I'm not sure if I'm supposed to go backward to Annie Dunne or re-read The Secret Scripture and then Annie. But I'll figure that out. I found an affordable copy of his first novel, Macker's Garden, which I believe has no relation to these about the Dunnes but I won't read that 'til I've read through to On Canaan's Side again. However, neither love nor a reasonable amount of money will get me a copy of The Engine of Owl-Light, as of the last time I nosed around. This was his second novel and I've had no luck at all adding it to my collection. If I have to I'll fork over more money than I was comfortable with before but I'll deal with that when it's time. Mayhaps  a miracle will happen in the interim and I'll luck upon it in a used bookshop.

Speaking of time, his novels take quite a bit of that and being a playwright as well there's his tendency to write those when I'd rather he worked on a novel. Far be it from me to dictate to a genius but, well…

Let's face it. I'm going to be forced to start on the plays,  now, won't I. I may have a wait between novels and I'm not sure I can sway or hurry him with stories of my tears falling upon the keyboard, my wails splitting the ears of my family as I wallow in abject misery. Being a gentleman he'd pat me gently on the head and express his regret, which would not be a bad happening, mind, but in the meantime it's read and re-read and hope.

Sigh.

 

 

Longlongway2

 

 

Bleak House, Various and sundry.

My hands were itching to talk books with you all week but my wishes were thwarted due to a Typepad glitch. Seems the goodly blogging platform had quite a taste for all things Bluestalking. Not only would it not let me save new posts, it ate the last two I wrote as well and of course I hadn't backed them up because nothing like this has happened in forever. And I hope it had galloping indigestion to match my level of irritation.

Appealing to them via Twitter did me no good, a tactic that's served me well in the resolution of other consumer complaints, most recently in the replacement of a brand new sofa with a mangled underside. If there's one thing you never want it's a mangled underside and I was certainly having no part of that, especially when it's literally just been brought through the door. The store refused to replace it, offering instead to "fix" it. Unacceptable. Telling over a thousand followers of my woes got immediate attention. The store tweeted me within minutes and I had a phone call to schedule a re-delivery/switch the next business day. Now that is customer service, even if I had to lean on them to get it. Let them push me around? I think not.

That explains, in more detail than you needed, my relative internet silence over the past few days. But today I'm having another go, cautiously optimistic my computer won't blow up or my underside become mangled. If it does, I'm relying on all of you to Tweet it to the world.

 

In Progress:

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Yes, yes I was supposed to have finished it for last Wednesday's book discussion but that didn't happen. It was nearly impossible reading Dickens at the galumphing pace required, but luck was with me and no one else save our brave facilitator had finished, either. In fact, I'd gotten the furthest of us all, save the one person who finished but was unable to attend. Victory! Well, of sorts.

Consensus was the book was very, very long. A wise conclusion considering how much paper is between the covers. As to the story itself, opinion was a bit more mixed. Keeping all gazillion characters and plotlines straight proved a difficulty not worth the effort for some, roughly half I would say. One gentleman, after reading only the first few pages, saw fit to pick up the Cliff Notes instead, eschewing the original for the shortcut. What's discouraging is he seemed to have as good a grip on things as I did, having finished roughly 85%. Then again, he wasn't obliged to read the vast quantity of words with which I grappled. So there.

 

Bleakhousecliffnotes

We spent an awful lot of time asking each other, "What was the name of the _____ family's friend's servant?" and trying to untangle everyone with a similar name to another character. Partly because of this, if you haven't read Bleak House (or have but still aren't sure exactly what was happening) it's almost impossible spoiling the plot for you. The question would be, which plot are you even talking about, since there are so many. Of course they all funnel into the main plot regarding Esther Summerson (and cousins Richard and Ada), Lady Dedlock and the ongoing court case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in one way or other. It's always baffling how Dickens will manage to bring it all together by the end, yet always he does, minus a few characters who wander off but in some ways that's for the best, for the sanity of the reader.

 

So, what does BH say about Dickens and the Victorians? Jarndyce v. Jarndyce illustrates opinion about lawyers and court cases hasn't changed at all since the Victorians. Lawyers are generally nasty, self-serving creatures and court cases convoluted and dull. Shock horror!

As for the innocents, they so often suffer, sometimes losing their lives in unjust and unnecessary circumstances. Innocents include those with mental disabilities, children and those from the lower social order in general. BH is particularly sharp in the anger it directs at do-gooders, Mrs. Jellyby being a prime example, the woman so concerned with a village in Africa she doesn't notice anything happening in her own home. And I do mean anything. And Mr. Jellyby! If there's a better example of deep clinical depression in all of Victorian fiction I haven't read it.

Poor Mr. Jellyby, forever sitting with his head against a wall.

So, what of charity, to Dickens? Certainly not much of merit, extending past temporarily alleviating the suffering of those at hand. But even in that case, using Jo and his illness as an example, charity can backfire, leaving the best-intentioned permanently blemished. Going out of your way to help take care of your fellow wo/man doesn't fare well at all in BH.

Dickens has been called out before re: his depiction of women as either saints or whores. BH is filled with examples of saints – the "angels" in the house – with only one true "whore" in Lady Dedlock. She pays the price of her transgressions, in cruel ways. To be fair, so does the man who was the other half of that relationship, but he's largely shrouded in mystery. We know how he dies – destitute and alone – and there's a suggestion it was intentional, but Dickens shows us every bit of Lady Dedlock's agony.

 

Ladydedlock

The saint above all saints in BH is Esther Summerson, a character who may – I'm warning you – drive you barking mad by mid-book. She's exaggeratedly kind (and I really don't think it's intented ironically). Her interaction with Ada made me feel vaguely nauseous. There's friendship, then there's over the top and saccharine. But even the saints don't escape some very steep trials.

 

 

Did Dickens hate women? Oh, I don't know. There's lots written about it. I can tell you he treated his wife with callous indifference and almost surely had an affair with a beautiful actress. He also had a sort of crush on his dead sister-in-law, practically throwing himself in her grave when she died. Not sure what all that proves, if anything.

Ask me more later in the year. I'll know better by then.

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, BBC – 2005

 

Dickens at 200

Serendipitous Bleak House was the January read in our classics book group, considering the Inimitable's 200th birthday is coming up February 7th.

Martin Chuzzlewit is next up for me, in my personal celebration of all things Dickens. MC and the recent Claire Tomalin bio. This will be my first foray into MC and I know nothing about it – one reason I'm looking forward to the experience.

After MC I honestly can't say I'll have the luxury to fit in another Dickens novel in 2012, since I am attacking Ulysses starting Bloomsday this year (June 6). I'm allowing the rest of the year to read that one properly, relying heavily on true Irishman Frank Delaney and his podcasts on Ulysses to minimize my inevitable confusion.

To celebrate properly I'd need to take a trip to Dublin. I'm cheating myself by not doing so and I think I'll put that on my official Bucket List. There's a pub out there, somewhere, that has a stool with my name on it, and a few barrels of Guinness to get together a good drinking game to go along with a public reading of the book. One swallow for every swear should have me under the table in less than two hours. Change that to every sentence longer than a page and I'll be out in half that time. Of course it's likely I'd wake up with a shamrock – or worse – drawn on my forehead and my hair matted in who knows what.

Yes, onto the Bucket List it goes.

 

 

Bloomsdaydublin

From an article in The Guardian

 

 

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

Heartrendingly gorgeous and I'm in no hurry to finish, as Sebastian Barry hasn't written all that many novels. I do so love his writing and this in no way involves a massive crush of an adolescent nature, mixed with a great appreciation of his lyricism and unfailingly gorgeous writing.

I'm further along but reluctantly so. It's difficult reading about the horrors of war and I've grown so fond of Willie Dunne it's hard seeing inhumane events through his eyes. Right now I'm just past the point at which he realizes his last letter offended his father, though he's not positive why. And as for the lovely Gretta… I just don't trust that one. Great looking or not, I have a feeling Willie could have chosen better than herself with the green eyes.

 

 

Samsavage

Author Sam Savage

 

Glass by Sam Savage – Currently reading for review.

I have loved Sam Savage's writing since his first novel, Firmin:

"Savage's sentimental debut concerns the coming-of-age of a well-read rat in 1960s Boston. In the basement of Pembroke Books, a bookstore on Scollay Square, Firmin is the runt of the litter born to Mama Flo, who makes confetti of Moby-Dick and Don Quixote for her offspring's cradle."

Publishers Weekly

I interviewed him following the publication of that novel, now that I think of it. Such a dear man.

Glass is about a widow asked to write a new introduction for the re-issue of her late husband's book but actually more about her life, memories and adjustment to being alone. What's sweetly poignant is there's a rat in this novel, as well, though the standard mammal who isn't able to read and express himself in words. Loads more than this is poignant but it was the rat that really got to me.

Between Firmin and Glass there was The Cry of the  Sloth:

"Living on a diet of fried Spam, vodka, sardines, cupcakes, and Southern Comfort, Andrew Whittaker is slowly being sucked into the morass of middle age. A negligent landlord, small-time literary journal editor, and aspiring novelist, he is—quite literally— authoring his own downfall. From his letters, diary entries, and fragments of fiction, to grocery lists and posted signs, this novel is a collection of everything Whittaker commits to paper over the course of four critical months."

– from Amazon.com

I love books that rip out my heart, dice it to bits and toss it onto a plate. Even better are those with a wicked dark sense of humor involving books, readers and/or writers. Sam Savage manages to hit my soft spots in every, single book he writes. He's not nearly as well known as he should be.

Read him. Do.

 

Restoring Grace by Katie Fforde – Reading for librarian group.

Nope, I'm not one for conventional romance and my last reading round up covered the reasons I chose this when forced to read outside my genre comfort zone: British, ancient home and single women living together, making a go of it sans men. Oh, and the Irishman, coming to woo the owner of the ancient home…

 Shush.

 

Losing It: In Which An Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain by William Ian Miller

From the good people at Yale U.P. and it's basically about what it says. It makes a good NF read to pick up while the rest of the family's watching t.v.  I can read NF with noise going on around me but not fiction. Not without a rise in blood pressure that's not worth it, I should say.

 

Coming Soon:

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – next read for classics group.

Love this book, can't wait to re-read, so you know it must be a heart-ripper. Also planning to squeeze in McCullers's unfinished autobiography, an Amazon purchase I allowed myself last week, though my fondness for the Amazon Daily Deal eBook has me well on my way toward addiction. Funny how I managed to side-step making an actual resolution about book buying this year. Or, not so much funny as frightening.

 

Reviews:

In between reads for BookBrowse, LibraryJournal and Booklist. Then there are the various and sundry review books, otherwise known as The Great Horde, including Barry Unsworth's latest The Quality of Mercy.

Also checked out from the library: How it All Began by Penelope Lively and Secrets of the Sea by Nicholas Shakespeare. Re: the latter, right now I can't recall what it's about or why I ordered it. Must have had some good reason. Funny, the ILL books that wind up on my desk are usually of this ilk. I either can't remember requesting them or why.

 

As usual, I'm obviously bereft of great reading material. All my time is wasted on breathing, eating and sleeping until such time as I can find my way back to reading. They say Americans are reading less and less every year, though whether that includes Tweets and McDonald's game pieces I don't know.

I smell another government study that needs funding! Perhaps I'll drop past Twitter and mention it.

 

 

Twitterbird

 

 

 

Review: Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

I would have sworn I'd finish no more books by the end of the year but it just goes to show when you make such a pronouncement you're nearly always wrong. The virus that's knocked me flat over the past few days made it impossible to stay awake the first two but yesterday, lo and behold, I was able to maintain consciousness long enough not only to read Sara Levine's Treasure Island!!! but also most of Ali Smith's There But for The.

 I believe I was so starved for reading time my pace was set to double-quick. Also, it didn't hurt Levine's book went so quickly and Smith's was clearly written by angels. Actually, know what it made me think of? Sebastian Barry. Oh shut up with your "doesn't everything…" because no, it doesn't. The style – the beautiful, poetic prose – is uplifting in the same way as Barry. No wonder it was one of his favorite reads of 2011, and, okay, part of the reason I decided to go ahead and slip it in the line ahead of Jennifer Egan's blockbuster Goon Squad.

Happy now?

 

Treasureisland Therebutforthe

 

I'm not ready to talk about There But for The, aside from the fact it's gob-smackingly BRILLIANT through the 3/4 point, where I am. Not that I expect it to take a nosedive, as that would be shocking indeed. It's more that I honestly don't have time to get into it as deeply as it deserves right now. But for Treasure Island!!! there's time enough.

Let's first cover a point I know I've heard ad nauseum, therefore so probably have you. That is, the issue of "I don't like the main character, therefore how can I be expected to like the book?"

?

A bit of a literary lesson, if I may be so bold: YOU DON'T HAVE TO LIKE EVERY CHARACTER IN A BOOK FOR IT TO BE WELL-WRITTEN! Sorry for using my outside voice but STOP SAYING THAT!

I find Humbert Humbert one of the most reprehensible, revolting and disgusting bits of slime ever to walk the pages of a book but by damn Lolita is a fine piece of literature. I'm not supposed to like HH. If I did there would be something sociopathically wrong with me. Same goes for Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. Anyone find him particularly endearing? So, is Oliver Twist any less a masterpiece? Etc., etc., etc.

Intentionally creating an unlikable main character is a skill, sort of like juggling, or playing the piano – anything that requires you do two things at once. Assuming other characters in a book are at least moderately likable, forming that one true baddie who provokes loathing in a reader is no easy feat. As for how this all ties into Treasure Island!!!, I'm reading it with an online group, and so far the most common complaint is "I don't like her!" Well, that's understandable, because throughout most of the book the main character is a selfish, conceited bitch. Though, on the other hand, she's at times a hilariously funny, selfish, conceited bitch.

Personally, having said an awful lot about recognizing an author's skill despite how you feel about her characters, in the end – despite the character's very last minute growth/change – I did not find the book that satisfactory a read. It was funny at times, wicked at others. And at the end I could kind of, sort of understand the character's motivation (in addition to seeing the aforesaid growth) for all the things she did within the course of the book. But was she a masterfully-drawn character?

Not quite. There simply wasn't enough to the book. It didn't have enough to say about, well, anything in particular. It's an entertainment, rather than a piece of literature I walked away from feeling in some way transformed, more enlightened about the human condition. Despite an okay ending it just didn't grab me. I love books that knock me around a bit, leave me bruised and battered.

What's it about? The main character – who, as far as I can recall, is never named – becomes, for no apparent reason, obsessed with R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. She carries the book with her everywhere, taking endless notes, mostly about extraneous details most of us wouldn't care about, some of them in code for whatever reason. Her telling remark about the book, an image repeated several times, is:

"If life were a sea adventure, I knew: I wouldn't be sailor, pirate or cabin boy but more likely a barnacle clinging to the side of the boat. Why not rise, I thought. Why not spring up that very moment, in the spirit of Jim, and create my own adventure?"

And a barnacle she is, throughout the course of the book, occasionally realizing it but mostly just going along for the ride.

When the book opens she's working at a "Pet Library," which is exactly what it sounds: animals are checked out and returned after a specific lending period. After blowing all the owner's petty cash on a parrot, she's fired. Oddly enough, she's never charged with stealing the  money. For the rest of the novel she knocks about, living off people and doing as she pleases. With the  parrot, of course. The parrot she despises. The owner of the Pet Library was curiously uninterested in adding it to her collection, though her money bought the incredibly expensive bird.  Why not try to recoup that investment or demand it be returned and her money restored to her? Again, I just don't know.

She meets and develops a boyfriend relationship with a man named Lars, moves in with him once her unemployed state makes her unable to afford her own apartment, and starts spending his money like mad. Things go forward, little makes any sense and telling more would just be spoiling the plot.

Books that are just okay, fun while they last then forgotten, are pretty much useless to me. I don't read "beach books," "chick lit" or, usually (though watch for an upcoming exception to that rule), "cozies." I don't like the light and fluffy. I don't need a lighter book between more serious books. They waste my limited reading time. I want the exceptional, the concise books that pack a serious punch or the longer, poetic, angelic books of the sort Sebastian Barry (!) and Ali Smith write. Among others, of course, but choosing favorite writers is much like choosing a favorite among my children. Depending on the day.

But it's not all bad for Sara Levine. She writes some howlingly funny stuff, like this:

"I've never liked Long John Silver, but reading about him vigorously stumping around on his wooden leg prepared me to see the positive side of a crippled life. I shudder to think of it, but I know my strengths: I could lose a limb and, with the right wardrobe, still come off as sexy. I'm not saying I would want to wear a prosthetic hand, only that I'm the kind of girl who could pull it off, whereas Adrianna – what can I say? Her appeal is limited."

Her humor, dark and snarky, is the sort I like. I just didn't love the book as a whole. After discussing it with the Rumpus Book Group I may have a more generous point of view but I expect it won't change dramatically. On a scale of one to Sebastian Barry it's a mere meh. Nothing to get excited about, nothing to flail my arms around recommending. It's funny, the main character is basically a useless but wonky leach, and in the end she undergoes a sort of awakening. So it's all there, all the requirements of good writing. It just didn't excite me. Plus, there's a bit about cruelty to animals. Gratuitous cruelty. And sorry, that's just not funny.

My two cents? I'd take a pass on this one.

 

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

Europa Editions (December 7, 2011)

ISBN:    978-1609450618

Pages: 172

$ 15.00

 

Source: My personal library.

 

 

 

 

To make a long story even longer…

Such a long time since I've had the luxury to sit down and just chat. I miss that. So much going on here I barely know what day it is. And I'm exhausted. I'm not sure if it's age, unaccustomed activity or what but I feel like I was hit by a truck after all the activity this week. Don't get me wrong, it was all fun stuff. At least there's that.

One bad thing about resurfacing is finding autumn's passing quickly and I've hardly had time to appreciate it very much. It isn't spectacular around here, though. Not sure why. We don't seem to have enough of the brilliantly-colored trees for that WOW factor. Some spots are nice. Driving from here to Dundee – the locals will know – is always pretty impressive. There's one area, where town turns into farmland, where the trees arch over the road, making a glowing, golden tunnel. It's pure magic. I haven't been that way lately to know if that's already done. Maybe I'll check that out this weekend but I'm afraid I won't like the answer.

Within the family circle, the biggest thing going is my daughter is applying to, and hearing back from, colleges. She's gotten a couple acceptances but so far not from her top choice schools. There's not really been enough turnaround time yet, though. I'm shocked any of them have had the chance to already say yes. But it's a good sign none have declined. Kid's brainy, though, on both left and right sides. She lucked out, getting her dad's math abilities and her mum's literature genes. I think she'll do okay.

Do you want to hear a quick run-down of the past couple weeks in literary events?

 

Zoneone

First, my review of Colson Whitehead's Zone One is up at BookBrowse.com. This was a real out of my comfort zone (no pun intended) novel. Post-Apocalyptic zombie fiction isn't something I'd normally go for but I snapped this one up with Whitehead's name attached. I hadn't read any of his novels. I needed to remedy that and now that I have read his stuff I only want to read more. I picked up his Sag Harbor. And I'll read that when…?

Hold onto that idea. It'll resurface here before too much time has passed.

I believe I mentioned seeing/talking briefly with Sebastian Barry, when he was in the Chicago area for his On Canaan's Side book tour. He was so, so kind, so patient with this insane avid fan. For each I wrote a different inscription request on a Post It note. He didn't humor all my requests, but was gentleman enough to scribble out a couple custom inscriptions.

On Canaan's Side

IMG_9348

Translation from the original Sanskrit:

To my muse, my inspiration.

With profound affection,

Sebastian Barry

2011

 

A Long, Long Way

 IMG_9350

Translation:

There are not words enough to express

my gratitude.

Yours, gratefully,

Sebastian Barry

 

The Secret Scripture

 IMG_9351

Translation:

Now you're starting to creep me out.

Please leave before I call security.

Love, until the sun ceases to shine,

Sebastian Barry

Then there was Chris Bohjalian. From his signing I learned, among other things, when one is told to "brace for impact" in a plane crash it's necessary to keep both feet on the floor, lest you break both your legs from the force of hitting the ground, slightly inhibiting your chances of getting out alive. He didn't learn this from real life experience, thank goodness. It was from research for his current book The Night Strangers.


IMG_9353

And, Midwives

 

IMG_9354

Tuesday of this week found me at the Illinois Library Association Conference 2011 Author Dinner. Seems like forever ago I booked Goldie Goldbloom and Elizabeth Berg on behalf of our library. And they were stellar choices, if I do say so myself.

And I do.

 IMG_9270

ILA set up author tables for each library's author attendees. A local indie bookseller sold copies of the books. Signees then had to roam for signatures.

Pretty swag event, no? A real class act. The Intercontinental O'Hare was magnificent. Just magnificent. The art alone was impressive. Here's my personal favorite piece, an artist's rendition of the interconnectedness of all points on earth:

IMG_9310-2
Pretty cool, no?

And speaking of pretty cool:

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Authors Elizabeth Berg and Goldie Goldbloom, plus our library Director and incoming ILA President Lynn Elam.

But that's not all:

IMG_9285-2
Who might that man be, gazing over his glasses?

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Honey, he not only might be, he is Michael Cunningham.

Cunninghamworks
And he's a wonderful, down to earth, kind man. Pulitzer Prize? What Pulitzer Prize!

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He's just a really nice guy. Who happens to have a brilliant mind.

Okay. He's not just anything but incredible.

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Thank you to:

Lynn Elam and the Algonquin Area Public Library District for making me a part of ILA 2011

Goldie Goldbloom and Elizabeth Berg for honoring us with their attendance

after-words Indie bookshop for providing all the books

And Michael Cunningham, for being Michael Cunningham

 

IMG_9357-2

What a couple of weeks.

 

JULIAN BARNES!

THE MAN…

THE MYTH…

THE MAN BOOKER WINNER 2011

 

 

JULIANBARNES
PHOTO BY RICHARD SAKER

 

SENSEOFENDING

 

And I called it here.

That is, Sebastian Barry and I did.

That's SEBASTIAN BARRY.

And I.


(Allow her a moment of fantasized grandeur, will you?)

Sunday Salon: October 9, 2011 Edition

Sundaysalon 

 

Banned Books Week 2011 has been and gone.

My Booker Shortlist read has stalled, and besides, I promised Sebastian Barry (swoon) I'm putting all my karma on a Julian Barnes win. So I'm calling it: Julian Barnes for The Sense of an Ending. Never lie to an Irishman. Especially when it comes to karma. And when he's as fantastically, unearthly amazing as Sebastian Barry. Who should have won the Booker himself!

Dammit.

Not that Barnes's work isn't mind blowingly great. Oh, it is. It's great in the lean, concise style I love. And Barry's great in the poetic, soul-touching way. I love them both but I shall always feel bitter about Man Booker 2011.

 

Senseofending 

 

Reading news? I'm working on S.J. Watson's fantabulous Before I Go to Sleep. Ironically, it's been keeping me up nights.

 

Beforegotosleep 

 

Ditto Nimrod's Shadow by Chris Paling.

 

Nimrodsshadow 

I've also been downloading free eBooks from Amazon, long-forgotten older works someone should be reading. So I've elected me.

And the titles are occasionally hilarious:

Poise: How to Attain It

The Spinster Book

Books Fatal to Their Authors

Little Fuzzy

The Real Dope

The Unspeakable Gentleman

and, one of my personal favorites:

Space Viking

 

Also finished up Colson Whitehead's Zone One for review. Never thought I'd be so intrigued by zombie literature but it's heavily character-driven, written in Whitehead's lush style. I thought it a bit heavy-handed at first but it started to grow on me. Ignore the flippin' Amazon reviews. I'm not sure who's writing them, nor do I care why they've been so down on it.

The problem may be its style, actually. I found it perfect for this particular book but it does come off sounding fairly … Not sure how to put it. Dismissive? Aloof? Something like that. But my advice is to read it. It's started me on a Colson Whitehead hunt. I picked up Sag Harbor at one of the Borders funerals. Once I finish that I'll eventually get through his other stuff. Have you read his articles? Holy mother of God.

Plus, the cool of that man is legendary.

 

Colsonwhitehead

 

Need I elaborate? Didn't think so.

Post-apocalyptic fiction? I guess I was pretty enthralled by Stephen King's The Stand, back in my teens. I read the whole honkin' thing straight through, barely coming up for air. For food, rather and the occasional bathroom break. I holed up in  my bedroom with it; I could not put the thing down. Dismiss Stephen King all you will but The Stand is a fine, fine novel. Much better than that Dan Brown thriller crap as far as page-turners go.

 

Next week I'm meeting Chris Bohjalian, on his The Night Strangers tour. He's coming to the Waukegan Library on the 10th and I already okayed a short interview/chat with him. Excited for that.

May get to the Bill Bryson reading/signing via Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, IL, too. Only that's one of those auditorium events. And I'm not sure I have the energy to chat up his agent for an interview. Lacking that, I'm sure he's a fun speaker. He's a damn funny writer. Maybe I will.

Week after that, Michael Cunningham, Goldie Goldbloom and Elizabeth Berg.

Sweeeet.

And that's it for now from Bluestalking Headquarters.