Ask any gardener. We’ll tell you that gardens are real enough–made of tangible living material and soil. But they are also products of the imagination, like any art form. And they are cultural products. Just compare the typical American garden–diverse, open, slightly wild–to the gardens characteristic of (in order of increasing formality) England, France, Italy, or Japan, respectively. Each culture imbues its gardens with its own peculiar approach to managing reality.
Because, after all, that is what a garden is–managed reality. A constant balance between the natural and the synthetic, between what we infer the natural world to be and what we want it to become. Between the ungraspable chaos of the natural universe and the aspirational coherence of our human minds.
If have written a book lately (or not so lately), we’re still looking for authors to be interviewed on Late Last Night Books!
A publicity opportunity
Once again, I am looking for authors who want help publicizing their books or writing project in future blog posts. In my experience, getting your name and work “out there” is the most painful part of being a writer. I’m hoping this blog can help make that process a little less painful for others–especially writers (and that’s most of us) who don’t have well-funded publicity machines working on our behalf.
Leo Tolstoy – the greatest novelist of all – and yet lots of readers, even serious ones, have never read him. Why? Partly it’s because his two most famous works, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are on the long side. That’s true, but even so, if you read just an hour a day, and typically read a short novel in a week, it might take a month to read Anna Karenina, and six weeks or two months to read War and Peace. Not that long. And you’ll probably read them faster, because they’re so good you’ll find yourself reading more at weekends and on evenings when you have time. But let’s say you’re really busy, and intimidated by these monuments of Russian literature.
for not posting a book reivew this month is that I haven’t fallen in love with any of the books I’ve been reading lately. Of course, I don’t always post reviews of books I’m positive about, but the book needs to have sufficient substance to do a review.
One of my problems is I don’t get review copies of books and therefore have to rely on recommendations of others. That limits my ability to read books that are pre-press or have just come out. I’m not complaining . . . just explaining.
So, until next month, keep reading and if there’s a book you’d like me to read and review, email me.
I recall years ago reading about the success formula for television sitcoms: the plots can, and often should, be completely implausible, but they must be probable. In other words, the situation and actions can be as weird as you like—the weirder, the funnier—but the sequence of events has to make sense within that weird context. Lucy wandering lost in the New York City subway with her head stuck in a mammoth loving cup was perfectly acceptable, and hilarious, so long as Ricky didn’t suddenly materialize inexplicably out of nowhere to rescue her.
This formula makes me think of my favorite movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. To me, it represents the culmination of Hitchcock’s genius: a realism so rarified that it presents completely unbelievable situations in ways that make them seem perfectly natural.
Last month I reflected on on how Beverly Clearly‘s death brought back cherished memories of childhood reading. Most especially, it reminded me of the many children’s series that kicked off a lifetime of reading for me: Cleary, Carolyn Haywood, Madeline L’Engel, Sydney Taylor, and Noel Streatfeild among them.
I asked if others had similar memories, especially about series I may have forgotten.
Nancy Drew and Judy Blume Books
I was surprised to get so few responses. Perhaps I had done a better job than I thought remember. Perhaps I was a broader reader than I remembered. But there were a few obvious series I had embarrassingly overlooked:
How could I have forgotten?
For months, I’ve been contemplating giving up—not just this column, but writing. Altogether. I hope this won’t sound like a long whine, whinge, or worse—the dreaded ‘mansplaining.’ But for a long time, there has been no interest in my work from the industry, even though I’m fairly sure I write better than I did fifteen years ago, when there was a lot of interest. Some of that, I suspect, is because of the current ‘woke’ moment—what a ‘vile phrase’ that is, to quote the Bard. But I’ve moaned about that before so I won’t now.
It could also be because my writing simply isn’t engaging a new, different audience: one that is not only ‘woker’ (presumably, if we can trust the media), but one is that is doubtless younger, and suffers from a shorter attention span.
Jerry A. Rose & Lucy Rose Fischer, The Journalist (Spark Press, 2020)
She probably doesn’t remember, but Lucy Rose Fischer attended my birthday party at my house in Gloversville, New York when I was 7 or 8 years old, and I remember visiting their house probably for a reciprocal activity. I also knew about her older brother Jerry’s being a reporter covering Vietnam and his dying there in 1965. For that reason and because of my interest in Vietnam, I wanted to read Lucy’s book that honors Jerry and shares his story.
I would recommend The Journalist even without a personal connection as a way to keep alive the sad story of America’s involvement in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries post-World War II.
The death of Beverly Clearly last month immediately brought me back to the Evanston Public Library cerca 1966. I saw my 8-year-old self scouring the shelves for every book I could find about Ramona, Ribsy, or Henry Huggins. I limited myself to 5 books per check-out. But I loved that I could come back for more.
My heart beat fast every time I returned to the library for another fix. It beat even faster when I carried my cache home and dove into the stories. My goal was to read Cleary’s entire oeuvre.
A Serie-ous Habit
I was only busy clearing out the Cleary collection because I had read my way through every one of Carolyn Haywood‘s series.
We’re all being urged to read ‘more diverse voices’ these days, although you may have noticed that almost all of the writers you’re being told to read write in English, live in the United States or England and have been to top-tier universities. Curiously, they’re also nearly of the same currently fashionable ethnicity, and the majority of them are of the same sex, or gender if you prefer. Odder still, the stories resemble each other: nearly all are victim narratives, ‘heartbreaking’ stories of loss, oppression, repression, cruelty, violence and slavery. And there’s a bogeyman (I choose the gender deliberately here) common to all these novels too. You know who that is.
Let me state categorically, for anyone who doesn’t know my views, that I am not defending the hegemony of the white male, and welcome diverse voices, provided they are talented, and provided they are—well, diverse.
Daniel Silva, The Order (2020)
If there were an award for the best opening chapter of a fiction, including characterization, dialogue, plot and theme, the first chapter of The Order would be in the running. Daniel Silva, after all, is no amateur in beginning a novel that feels that it has been recorded by cameras, microphones and probes into each characters mind. The initial scene in The Order suggests something tragic has happened at the Vatican. The chapter’s main character, Archbishop Luigi Donati, fears the worst. It turns out his mentor, Pope Paul VII, is dead and the circumstances are suspicious.
Thus begins a narrative featuring the Church of Rome and the Church’s most trusted Jew––Gabriel Allon. The complexity, including a fictional account of the origins of the Church, is portrayed realistically, with verve and in a tasteful manner, considering Allon’s role, must represent a heresy to millions.
Recently I attended a lecture about Irish “occasional poetry.” This doesn’t mean poetry written now and again; it means poetry written and performed for special occasions: holidays, commemorations, funerals and the like. The most obvious of these that comes to mind is “The Hill We Climb,” the poem commissioned for, written and performed by Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration.
I won’t get into a critique of the poem, except to say that I liked it on the whole, and that, like most people, I admire Ms. Gorman’s talents. Nor will I comment much on an infamous precursor, “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander, performed at President Obama’s first inaugural in 2009. (Suffice to say that at the time I had a good rant about it with my favorite poet, Alexandra Burack, who also happens to be my cousin.)
Let me say first that this was a large Zoom group, and the editor and author are both alumni of Selwyn, one of the colleges of the University of Cambridge, as I am. I did manage to ask one question. Since it was a private group I shall not name the figures, though you may be able to guess who they are, particularly the editor.
The editor founded one of the largest independent publishers in the world in the eighties, and has published Booker Prize winners and Nobel Prize winners. He also discovered JK Rowling–to whom he offered the princely advance of £1,500 for her first novel. (Her agent persuaded him to raise the offer to £2,500!) Many people in the meeting asked questions about how to find a publisher, whether an agent was necessary, and so on.
Victor LaValle, The Changeling, 2017, Maggie Stiefvater, Call Down the Hawk, & Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand, 2018
Fantasy fiction seems to be in the midst of a crisis. The content of recent novels is ripe with bizarre plots and characters––the more extreme the better. Of course, I’m basing this on a small sample, but it’s worth pointing out in hopes someone will read this and prove me wrong.
I couldn’t finish The Changeling, an award-winning novel. It is billed as a fantasy, but what makes it so is a macabre story line where the fantasy portion only appears half way through the book. The book’s title doesn’t make sense for over two hundred pages. The Changeling is really horror, not fantasy, fiction.
“She had discovered that this was the tragedy of being human: unlike every other living thing, each person lived alone inside themselves, always seeking to build a bridge from soul to soul but never really succeeding, at least not for a few shining moments, now and then.” –Carol Bird, A Home Worth Having, 2020.
The great human paradox. Anyone who has lost a loved one to death—and we all have—knows it is so. All human souls have the grief of loss in common, yet each of us must grieve alone. And because this paradox is so obvious in our lived experience, we try to transcend it. Failing that, which we invariably do, we deny it.
Is that why editors of fiction so often insist that human points of view must always be given in isolation from one another?
Last month I asked readers about favorite books on pandemics, plagues, exile, quarantines, and social isolation–on many of our minds for obvious reasons. This month I wanted to share the list of selections in case you have a bit of time on your hands.
Thanks to everyone who helped me build these lists. I’m looking forward to reading some of the selections as the lock-downs promise to continue. Then again, perhaps I’ll just keep plowing through Proust.
Fictional Books on Pandemics, Plagues, and Social Isolation
Here’s a short list of fictional books on pandemics, plagues, and other human tragedies that require quarantines and other forms of social isolation:
- The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Ten young Italian aristocrats flee Florence to escape the bubonic plague and self-isolate in a secluded countryside villa telling stories, some tragic, some bawdy and irreverent.
It struck me recently that I still hadn’t read all of Shakespeare, and there was no real excuse. After all, I claim to be a writer, in English, and Shakespeare has been regarded as the prince of poets for four hundred years. It’s possible that in our benighted days, when even university curricula frequently try to teach identity politics—which means bombarding their students with woke authors of cool ethnicities and sexual persuasions, among other things—Shakespeare, as a Dead White Male from an evil colonial country, is considered irrelevant, or worse, pernicious. But quite apart from the fact that the man was surely gay or bisexual (it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s read the sonnets coming to any other conclusion) and that his plays are full of gender-fluid people, there are compelling literary reasons to read him too.
Call Down The Hawk is book one of The Dream Trilogy by fantasy author Maggie Stiefvater. Stiefvater has created a unique fantasy world in which there are dreamers who can create things in the real world––some times those dreams are under their control; sometimes not. Sometimes they dream duplicates of themselves, which can get complicated. Then there are those who are hunting the dreamers to kill them.
Stiefvater is a master at creating fantastic worlds. The problem to this reader is that the world overwhelms the story. The lack of a defined plot in the early chapters made my following the story a challenge. That’s an issue which only improves slightly as the story progresses.
That’s not to say she doesn’t create interesting characters as well as well as interesting possibilities.
Think of a movie or book you love where not a single character, not even the hero, is truly virtuous. For old-timers like me, “The Sting” (you know, starring Robert Redford) immediately comes to mind. For literary types, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith. Both are about con artists, though the crooks in “The Sting” are fun and are just ripping off illegal gamblers, where Mr. Ripley is, well, pretty much everything that personifies awfulness. The fact is that there are compelling anti-heroes for all literary tastes, the common ingredient being that we somehow end up rooting for them despite their criminality. What is the point of works like this–what are we supposed to do with them? Now that I’m working on a novel about a professional rumrunner during Prohibition (based very loosely on my grandfather), these questions are beginning to haunt me.
One “silver lining” of the COVID-19 pandemic has been time (dare I say too much time?) for reading. I am plowing through my library, and may even complete my lifelong quest to finish Proust. I’m also drawn to books about social distancing, pandemic-inspired and otherwise.
I know I’m not alone here. The movies and documentaries about plagues and pandemics topping Netflix’s lists make that obvious. So do recent book club suggestions to resurrect books like Love in the Time of Cholera and Station Eleven. So I thought it might be fun this month to see what other books about pandemics, plagues, quarantines, exile, and/or social distancing homebound readers have found.
Socially Distant Stories
As both an historian of medicine and science writer, I have many books about plagues and pandemics on my bookshelves.
Some of the finest thriller and crime writers of all time have come from the British isles starting with Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Ireland’s Tana French is on the path to joining the coterie of highly regarded contemporary mystery/thriller authors who include P.D. James, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, and Lee Child.
French has a unique story-telling style that may not suit all readers––particularly if your preference is for short, action-filled scenes. French constructs her stories as if building a castle, stone by stone.
Both novels I read had female protagonists struggling to following their intuition and not the rules set for them by their male counterparts. This is done without preaching which I appreciate.
In The Likeness French sets the story around a unique set of circumstances––the victim of a murder bares an uncanny resemblance to a former member of the Murder Squad, a specialist in going underground in disguise.
Speaking of self-suppressing heroines (well I was, anyway), consider the protagonist of Daphne Du Maurier’s blockbuster 1938 novel, Rebecca. This first-person narrator is so self-deprecating that she never thinks it worthwhile to reveal her name, though she makes it clear that it’s a memorable one. The Rebecca of the title is the first Mrs. Maximilian de Winter, the narrator’s predecessor in marriage to a handsome but brooding aristocrat a good 20 years older than his naïve new bride. The plot centers on the narrator’s sense of utter inferiority—to the point of self-erasure—in comparison to her husband’s formidable first wife. The novel’s ingenious arc is only incompletely evident in the multiple movie and mini-series versions made over the decades (the best and most famous of which is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film).
Do a narrator’s accent and voice necessarily enhance the audiobook experience, even if they differ from the author’s? Clearly some audiobook producers think so. But would the author agree? The reader/listener?
I pondered audiobooks and accents in last month’s blog (The Narrator’s Accent). It turned out that I wasn’t the only one with strong opinions on the subject.
Most people who responded turned out to be fans of accented audiobooks. In this month’s blog, I share some of their responses.
The Audiobook Experience
Is a regional accent helpful in creating atmosphere? Or does it restrict a listener’s imagination? Does it pull you out of the story because you are struggling to understand the words?