Wednesday, October 22, 2014
I am grateful—to Epic Reads and to Ilene Wong, who Twittered me the news.
The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney, has been decidedly opaque about why she withdrew her fifth novel, "In Certain Circles" (Text), some months prior to its publication, in 1971. Her mother, to whom she was very close, had died suddenly the year before. Harrower told Susan Wyndham, who interviewed her a few months ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, that she was absolutely "frozen" by the bereavement. She also claims to remember very little about her novel—"That sounds quite interesting, but I don't think I'll read it"—and adds that she has been "very good at closing doors and ending things.... What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I've forgotten." Elsewhere, Harrower has cast doubt on the novel's quality: "It was well written because once you can write, you can write a good book. But there are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don't need to be written."
One established, well-respected novelist pondering whether a book is alive enough, choosing to live quietly, without fanfare. A debut novelist tapping out a book on a phone based on a band, building a story according to Wattpad comments.Then she found her calling — in the unlikely form of a baby-faced pop star. Ms. Todd started out as a reader on Wattpad in 2012, and quickly found herself spending several hours a day reading serialized fictional stories about One Direction. Last spring, she started writing her own story. “It took over my life,” she said.With her husband’s support, Ms. Todd quit her job working at a makeup store counter to write full time. She updated “After” with a new chapter every day to meet readers’ demands and tapped out much of the book on her cellphone. She wrote for five hours a day and spent three hours trading messages with readers on Wattpad, Twitter and Instagram and drew on those comments to help her shape the story.“The only way I know how to write is socially and getting immediate feedback on my phone,” she said.
Neither oil nor borders. Not religion. Not historical hurts or misremembered sleights. None of these. The next world wars, the experts say, will be fought over water. Over the three percent of the earth’s liquid total that pools in ponds and lakes, careens down channels, overruns crevasses, oozes from retreating glaciers, is barricaded up inside man-made reservoirs, is yanked up from the bottom of the well, is carried, jug to jug and bottle to hand toward cupped palms. Seeds, omnivores, carnivores, herbivores, feathered things—they need it. So do the pink dolphins and the mighty mollusks and the bulge-eyed toads and the little girl with the cascade of curls who has come to the banks with her heart set on adventure.
The upshot of all this research is: thinking is a kind of simulated interaction with the world, a metaphorical engagement that makes what we imagine more realistic. Mental images can have the same effect on the body and the mind as actual physical things. And metaphors are mental image makers par excellence.... Metaphors are experience's body doubles, standing in for actual objects and events.
However consciously or un-, The New Yorker, a kind of Jonestown of the literary/journalistic realm, encourages in its employees an ethos of superiority, essentialness, and disregard for fad and fashion. Shawn himself, in his words and demeanor, appears to disavow any self-importance. He wants to be taken as a quiet, modest man who puts the greatness of the institution he runs above all else. This faux-modest version of occupational vanity, in combination with native timidity, keeps very intelligent people in the same, often dead-end, jobs for years, simply because they can say, in this modestly quiet voice, that they work for The New Yorker. Great institutions, so long as they are small, will often (a) eventually take themselves too seriously and (b) try to camouflage their pride with self-effacement.On panic, a condition with which I am much too intimately familiar:
But for pity's sake don't dismiss this affliction as a chimera or a ruse or a plea for attention or any of the other at least implicitly condemnatory assessments that so many so often make of it. It is all too real, itself and nothing else, and it can be disabling. It came close to disabling me for life. The prospect of lunch with a colleague was torture. Flying was a sentence. Social life an ordeal. It's no wonder that with Valium always on my person and the need to lose myself in something that would take my mind off this dread, I throw my energy into fact-checking so violently. I start psychoanalysis and keep the Valium in the shirt pocket over my heart. This goes on, gradually abating, for many years.On publishing:
It's my strong impression that most of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list—"surprise" big hits bought with small or medium advances, such as that memoir by a self-described racial "mutt" of a junior senator from Chicago. Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate around the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet—even sturdy vessels—founder. This is an old story but one that media giants have not yet heard, or at least not heeded, or so it seems.Okay, obviously, I am a fan. Such a fan that I decided, mid-course or maybe sooner, to assign My Mistake to my Penn students in the spring. I can't think of a more complete introduction to life and forgiveness, facts and foibles, literary thinking.
You read Eula Biss' new book slowly, with care. You are not sure, at first, where it is going. The topic is immunity, also inoculation, also vaccination, epidemics, social responsibility, vampirism and the impossibility of completely knowing. There are episodes of bright, emboldened insight. There are incidents — sometimes still and sometimes cinematic — of personal story. There are playground questions and interviews with scientists, Achilles and Dracula, myths and birth and a child sleeping. There are others, and there is us. There are the invisible airborne germs and the visible, struck down dying.
Playwright and author Barbara Graham’s delicate “Camp Paradox: A memoir of stolen innocence” takes on the taboo topic of women abusing younger girls.
Susan Ito’s “The Mouse Room” is the quirky tale of a young woman working in a genetics lab while trying to find her own birth mother.
Faith Adiele’s “ The Nordic-Nigerian Girls’ Guide to Lady Problems” makes a trip to the gynecologist’s office funny, while exposing racial disparities in women’s health care.
Award-winning short story writer Ethel Rohan’s “Out of Dublin” is an exquisite tale of emotional survival.
In the gorgeous “Nest. Flight. Sky.” memoirist Beth Kephart muses on her mother’s death and her new-found obsession with birds.
All these true life stories are brave and beautifully written. The authors use the power of writing to understand and transcend challenges– their memoirs are an inspiration for all of us.
Inspired by the booming market for young adult novels, a growing number of biographers and historians are retrofitting their works to make them palatable for younger readers. Prominent nonfiction writers like Ms. Hillenbrand, Jon Meacham and Rick Atkinson are now grappling with how to handle unsettling or controversial material in their books as they try to win over this impressionable new audience.And these slimmed-down, simplified and sometimes sanitized editions of popular nonfiction titles are fast becoming a vibrant, growing and lucrative niche.
A Charmed Life
Here breathes a solitary pilgrim sustained by dewand the kindness of strangers. An astonished Midassurrounded by the exponentially multiplying miracles: myYucca and Cactus in the Chicago World Exposition;friends of the spirit; teachers. Ah, the bleak horizons of joy.Light every morning dawns through the trees. Surelythis is worth more than one life.
"At some point," my mother tells me, "you realize that your parents are not who you thought they were. You realize that they are something separate from what you have made out of them." She tells me this because she knows that I have been writing about her. It is what she says instead of saying, "You don't know me."I took these photos yesterday while walking Valley Forge National Historical Park with my friend, the amazing writer (Badlands) and teacher, Cyndi Reeves. Over four point five miles (Cyndi tells me), the conversation ranged from Krakow to Siena to the architectural form of stories to the autobiographical possibilities of fairy tales, and, in the final uphill climb, to Eula Bliss, whose The Balloonists Cyndi had also read years before I discovered it.
"For example," she says, "my sister always felt that our father didn't like her. Of course he liked her, he just didn't understand how to show that he liked her. She didn't really have a father that didn't like her, but that doesn't change the fact that she had the experience of having a father who didn't like her." My mother is telling me that I am not a liar, but that she is not what I write about her.
“I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart. “What it comes down to — and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently — is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’ ”Later, Mason returns to the topic:
“ ‘So I shot him,’ ” I said.“Exactly.”“ ‘Can you blame me?’ ”‘‘Exactly. Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”
And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should “do something.” In her case, that “something” has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is “testimony,” a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves.
Life is one thing and then another, one day and soon the next, ambition superseded by surprise, desire thwarted by the reality we didn't forecast. Sometimes we get out in front of life. Oftentimes, we don't.
So here's the question: Where, in all of this, is the plot? The conflict and the climax? The sure cause and the clear effect? The resounding resolution? Life is successive and iterative; it is not inherently themed or arced.
How audaciously delicious, then, that Jane Smiley has turned her considerable talents to a trilogy called "The Last Hundred Years" — and that she means it. One hundred years, one hundred chapters, the first 34 of which can be found in Book 1, titled "Some Luck." It's the Langdon family saga, the story of an Iowa farm and the people who inhabit it, the fences that stitch, the horizons that beckon, the love that lives in plain sight and inside a child's biscuits.
"Some Luck," simply and impossibly enough, is the story of what happens next.
Something is not right with Nadia Cara.
She’s become a thief. She has secrets. And when she tries to speak, the words seem far away. After her professor father brings her family to live in Florence, Italy, Nadia finds herself trapped by her own obsessions and following the trail of an elusive Italian boy whom no one but herself has seen. While her father researches a 1966 flood that nearly destroyed Florence, Nadia wonders if she herself can be rescued—or if she will disappear.
Set against the backdrop of a glimmering city, One Thing Stolen is an exploration of obsession, art, and a rare neurological disorder. It is about language and beauty, imagining and knowing, and the deep salvation of love.
One Thing Stolen was born of Beth Kephart’s obsession with birds, nests, rivers, and floods, as well as her deep curiosity about the mysteries of the human mind. It was in Florence, Italy, among winding streets and fearless artisans, that she learned the truth about the devastating flood of 1966, met a few of the Mud Angels who helped restore the city fifty years ago, and began to follow the trail of a story about tragedy and hope.
Beth is the award-winning author of nineteen books for readers of all ages, including You Are My Only, Small Damages, Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, and Going Over. She also teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania.
In an era when author tours and splashy book parties have grown increasingly rare, Ms. Dunham has organized a traveling circus of sorts that seems more like a roving Burning Man festival than a sober, meet-the-author literary event. Prominent comedians and writers, such as the “Portlandia” star Carrie Brownstein and the novelist Zadie Smith, have thrown their weight behind Ms. Dunham and will appear on her tour as part of a carefully curated cast of artists, along with live music, poetry readings and, naturally, food trucks.“I found the idea of a traditional author tour, where you go and stand behind the lectern and talk about yourself, I found it a little bit embarrassing, a little blatantly self-promotional and a little boring,” Ms. Dunham said. “I wanted it to have an arts festival feel, which is why we now have all these remarkable, special weirdos who I found on the Internet.”... The tour is also a way for Ms. Dunham to shed her TV persona and rebrand herself as an author. By putting her onstage alongside seasoned writers like the memoirist Mary Karr and the novelist Vendela Vida, Random House hopes to cast Ms. Dunham as a major new literary talent, not just a celebrity who leveraged her fame for a big book deal.
There was a grassy lawn where the dog rolled around scratching its back, and a big table on the deck where friends sat on weekends eating grilled salmon and drinking wine and complaining about things they knew were a privilege to complain about (the cost of real estate, the noise of leaf blowers, the overratedness of the work of more successful peers). And as I lay on that bed it occurred to me, terrifyingly, that all of it might not be enough. Maybe such pleasures, while pleasurable enough, were merely trimmings on a nonexistent tree. Maybe nothing—not a baby or the lack of a baby, not a beautiful house, not rewarding work—was ever going to make us anything other than the chronically dissatisfied, perpetually second-guessers we already were.
On November 6th (or thereabouts) writers and illustrators from across the great state of Pennsylvania will be stepping inside libraries to celebrate the impact libraries have on our lives and to remind our communities of the importance of safeguarding these essential institutions going forward. I have been paired with Downingtown High School (West) and librarian Michelle Nass, and what a day we are cooking up—four presentations on the Berlin Wall and the library research that led to that book's creation, and an afternoon among high school book clubbers who are reading Going Over.
I'm delighted and honored to be involved. It's a huge program, thoughtfully developed and executed by a team of librarians—including Margie Stern, the Coordinator of Youth Services in the Delaware County Library System—and eagerly participated in by those many of us who have relied on libraries throughout our careers (and long before "career" was a word we even entertained).
This weekend, the 2014 Pennsylvania Library Association Conference gets underway at the Lancaster County Convention Center. I'm grateful to have been joined with writer/teacher/editor/friend Stephen Fried (Thing of Beauty, Bitter Pills, The New Rabbi, Husbandry, Appetite for America) and Neal Bascomb (The Nazi Hunters, The Perfect Mile, Red Mutiny) for a Monday, 2:00 panel on nonfiction. I'm grateful, too, for the chance to hang out with the guardians of books, otherwise known as librarians. Thank you to Karl R. for the invitation.
If you are at the event, I hope you'll find us.
You can download the first 67 pages of Glory O'Brien for free here. In two weeks, you can buy the book itself. I hope you'll do both. In the meantime, congratulations to A.S. King.
A light meter could tell you what zone everything in a scene fell into. Bright spots—waterfall foam, reflections, a polar bear—were high numbers. Shadows—holes, dark still water, eels beneath the surface—were low numbers. You had to let the light into the camera in just the right way. You had to meter: find the dark and light spots in your subject. You had to bracket: manually change your shutter speed or aperture to adjust the amount of light hitting the film—or, in my case, for the yearbook, the microchip. You didn't want to blow out the highlights, and you had to give the shadows all the detail you could by finding the darkest max black areas and then shooting them three zones lighter.