Friday, December 25, 2009

32 Days to a Perfect '10

Ann Patchett (author of the memoir Truth and Beauty and the novels Bel Canto and Run, among others) recently wrote a column for the Washington Post about resolutions in the new year - especially the need for writers to treat writing as a job they show up for every day. "Whatever a person (does) with thoughtful consistency for the first 32 days of the year sets the course for the entire year," she states in the essay, reinforcing the underlying theme of how the more hours you spend working, the more work you actually get done.

So with January 1st just days away, whatever your talent and passion, go for it . . . And keep at it! When you take a measure of your efforts 32 days into the year, maybe February 1, 2010 will reveal a new year with the potential to become a Perfect '10!

Photo "Calendar" by Kathleen Gerard

Friday, December 18, 2009

Angel Time

"A writer can’t know everything about what she writes. It’s impossible. You reach deep down and you bring up what feels absolutely authentic to you as you move along with the book but you don’t know everything about it. You can’t." Anne Rice

Until I picked up Angel Time, I had never read the work of Anne Rice. Vampire stories don't interest me, but angels do - and that's exactly what drew me to Ms. Rice's latest novel. Long before there was The Twilight Saga and HBO's "True Blood," Anne Rice was cranking out The Vampire Chronicles, a whole series of mega-blockbusters. But when Ms. Rice gave atheism the heave-ho and personally reconnected with God and her Catholic faith after a 38-year hiatus, her writing goals suddenly changed and so did her stories. How fortunate for readers with tastes like mine! There have been the Christ the Lord books (Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana), fictionalized retellings of the life of Jesus. Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, a memoir about her life experiences growing up Catholic, becoming an atheist and her return to the Church. With Angel Time, Rice has written a suspenseful page-turner, a novel about a deeply wounded, contemporary Catholic who is lapsed, flawed and conflicted . . . and utterly fascinating.

Toby O'Dare (Jesuit-educated, age 28) has fled the Church and become a hired assassin. A loner with identity issues, Toby is bitter and rebellious toward a God who has permitted tragic losses to befall his fate. The horrifying backstory and lengthy flashback Rice paints about the protagonist's past is convincing and chilling - and makes the righteousness of Toby's anger at God seem completely justifiable. However, while Toby has outwardly turned his back on God and the Church, Catholicism continues to prey on his psyche - especially in his fondness for frequenting missions and chapels.

Toby says (page 9): "Maybe when you’re brought up Catholic, you hold to rituals all your life. You live in a theater of the mind because you can’t get out of it. You’re gripped all your life by a span of two thousand years because you grew up being conscious of belonging to that span . . . Never ever did I look at the nighttime stars or the sands of a beach without thinking of God’s promises to Abraham about progeny, and no matter what else I did or didn’t believe, Abraham was the father of the tribe to which I still belonged through no fault or virtue of my own."

When Toby utters a sarcastic prayer to God, an angel--Malchiah, a member of the Seraphim--suddenly appears to him in the midst of his performing a hit/murder. Malchiah offers Toby a chance to change his life and work for God rather than the people who hire Toby to kill for a living. “Redemption is something one has to ask for,” Malchiah tells him. The whole scene leading up to this supernatural encounter is masterfully-written and completely riveting that I wanted to stay in the present and have Toby find his redemption in the here and now. However, Rice unpredictably transports the reader back in time to the 13th Century (Norwich, England) where Toby, as a priest, undertakes a Divine assignment to aid a Jewish family facing mob violence.

Angel Time is the first in a proposed set of three novels written as part of the "Songs of the Seraphim" series. When asked in a recent interview to explain her motivation for writing novels about angels, Rice said, "It was time for me to try and make good guys as compelling as vampires...I was tired that the devil is always portrayed as the interesting one." With that as her aim, Angel Time more than succeeds.

Angel Time (The Songs of the Seraphim, Book One) by Anne Rice
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9781400043538, 288pp.)
Publication Date: October 27, 2009
To purchase this book via INDIEBOUND click HERE

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Literary Life: A Second Memoir

"I had expected to be thrilled when I received my first copy of my first book, but when I opened the package and held the first copy in my hand, I found that I just felt sort of flat . . . I learned then and have relearned many times since, that the best part of a writer's life is actually doing it, making up characters, filling the blank page, creating scenes that readers in distant places might connect to. The thrill lies in the rush of sentences, the gradual arrival of characters who at once seem to have their own life."

from LITERARY LIFE: A Second Memoir by Larry McMurtry

I don't know if I ever would've discovered the work of Larry McMurtry if hadn't been for the movie, Terms of Endearment (Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger). I loved the 1983 film--a story about a mother-daughter relationship that spans 30 years--and I was surprised to learn it was based on a book by Larry McMurtry. He's always had a reputation for writing literature of the American West, of which I had little interest. But after my Terms of Endearment epiphany (the book was very different from the movie, but just as wonderful), I went on to read the sequel, The Evening Star, and Moving On (a novel about the minor character, Patsy, from Terms).

Ever since, I've continued to read McMurtry. I tend to lean more toward his more contemporary-set fiction (
Duane's Depressed and the rest of the "Duane" books; The Loop Group; although Telegraph Days, about the Old West, was terrific, too) and his essays (Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen) are first rate. Even though he's won a Pulitzer Prize (Lonesome Dove) and an Academy Award (Brokeback Mountain, screenwriting adaptation from the short story by Annie Proulx), to many in highbrow literary circles, McMurtry is still considered an "outsider."

In reviewing his latest book,
Literary Life: A Second Memoir (his first memoir was Books: A Memoir; a third is in the works), Dwight Garner of The New York Times Book Review said this: "A lot of his (McMurtry's) stuff verges on being — how to put this? — typed rather than written. He’s published more guff, over the past 50 years, than just about any other major (semimajor? majorish?) American writer."

Guff? With close to thirty books under his belt (not to mention a slew of scripts), what author wouldn't have a few hits and misses? Does every book McMurtry writes need to have the heft of Lonesome Dove or The Last Picture Show? Is there not room for a writer--a writer who writes prolifically, in the extreme--to switch gears every now and then and lighten up sometimes? I find Garner's assessment harsh and unfair.

McMurtry has never claimed to be anything other than a writer of highly readable fiction and nonfiction who, at times, admits to have written books in order to make money. A "Minor Regional Writer," as he once called himself (which is grossly understated), is exactly the label the literary establishment has persisted in preserving, while continuing to try and undermine McMurtry's credibility and his craft. Thank goodness detractors have not been successful. McMurtry sells lots of book and his fans are numerous - and ardent. In my mind, the greatest gift of this author is his ability to craft authentic stories populated with characters in whom people can relate. He's a storyteller--in the truest sense of the word--whose prose can be brisk and light-hearted, but he's proven his storytelling-ability time and time again. Literary Life: A Second Memoir is a fascinating (and honest) look into the writing life of a dedicated author and how he's developed and maintained his craft all these years. You won't want to miss the passages where he shares insights into his reading habits and preferences.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Best Books of 2009

Lists and lists and more lists of "notable" books. The Top 100. The Top 10. The best of the best . . . Which writers have been selected and by whom? A comprehensive on-line compendium of Best Books of the year has been compiled by LargeHeartedBoy, a great blog about music, books and popular culture. (I particulary enjoy the Book Note Archive, where authors select playlists to accompany their books.) HERE you can access just about every Best Book List of the year from Publishers Weekly to the New York Times - and beyond. It's the perfect place to begin your search this Holiday Season. And while you're there, don't miss the link for Best Book Covers of the Year from The Book Design Review.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Confessions of Edward Day

"What actors know about emotions is that they come in pairs, often in direct opposition to each other. That’s what it is to be conflicted. We want what we should not want and we know it. We desire that which is dangerous or forbidden and might cause us to suffer. We fear success, embrace failure. We strive to be independent, longing at the same time to surrender to a burning passion. We hold ourselves aloof from the people we need and seek the approval of those who have no need for us . . . "

That's the voice of Edward Day (page 178), a narrator of great depth and contradiction found in Valerie Martin's latest novel, a fictional memoir entitled The Confessions of Edward Day.

It is the 1970s. Edward Day is an aspiring, up-and-coming actor pursuing his dream in New York City. One weekend, he has a tryst (more like a conquest) with a young woman (Madeleine Delavergne) while visiting friends at the Jersey Shore and later that night, while taking a walk by himself, he leans upon a wooden rail on the boardwalk and tumbles into the Atlantic, getting swept up in a riptide. It is Guy Margate, another actor who is also spending the weekend at the beach, who rescues Edward and saves him from drowning. But the hero will later evolve into a menacing rival for Edward--in both the theater and in love. There resides the quandary of The Confessions of Edward Day, a brilliant novel by the ever-prolific Valerie Martin.

Ms. Martin is primarily a writer of "literary" fiction, but I've always found her books to be very accessible and perfectly balanced in terms of plot and character. I most admire her strong, first person narrators--see also Dr. Jekyll's housemaid in her novel, Mary Reilly, and the slave owner in Property--but Edward Day is by far my favorite. He is such a complex character--smart, self-assured, ambitious and shrewd--and I kept changing my mind about him. Sometimes I despised him and his heartless vanity, yet other times, I felt sorry him. In the end, I found empathy for him and his fate largely because Martin skillfully peels away the layers of his outer shell to reveal a deeply wounded man. (His mother, a woman with gender issues, committed suicide, and it is that tragedy that seeps into all arenas of Edward's life and colors his motivations--in life and in the theater.) The book sets up an ever-shifting power struggle between Edward and Guy as they vie for Madeleine's affections. Add to the love triangle details and insights about life in the theater, the psyche of actors, and a very clever tie-in of the characterizations and storyline of Uncle Vanya (a play by Anton Chekhov) and you won't be able to stop turning pages. The Confessions of Edward Day emerges as a beautifully-written, gripping and suspenseful thriller.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Family Album

Allersmead, a large Victorian English Manor House, emerges as the main character in Penelope Lively's latest novel of domestic reality, Family Album. It is a story about how perceptions of a family (and that family's history) differ depending on the viewpoint. The novel begs the question, what went on in Allersmead back in the 1970s when the children were younger? What secret does Allersmead hold? And how has that secret shaped the future lives of each inhabitant--a family (The Harpers) with six children and an au pair. Lively is a master of detail and dialogue, both of which contribute great insight into the unreliability of family life. Through shifting points of view and a narrative that cuts back and forth between the 1970s and the present, Lively addresses the issues and themes of the novel via 16 chapters and short, episodic flashback scenes. As the title implies, events such as birthday parties, family dinners, and vacations are recalled like random snapshots in a family album. Ron Charles, of the Washington Post, said the book is " . . . full of glancing humor and spot-on truths about the way families maintain the peace through a process of willful ignorance and disciplined forgetfulness." However, each revelation, sharpened through contrasting perspectives and shifts in time, paints a clear, compelling--and haunted--picture of family dynamics.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Who really was Jane Austen?

What better way to spend an autumn afternoon than to stop in at The Morgan Library in New York City and check out "A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy." It's the first time in more than a quarter of a century that The Morgan has exhibited manuscripts and letters penned by Austen herself. The four novels published in her lifetime have no surviving manuscript versions. But this exhibition features early editions of Austen's novels and the "only surviving complete draft of any of her novels, Lady Susan, an early epistolary tale whose heroine is more Machiavellian than any schemer Austen later imagined." A review of the exhibit was published in The New York Times (11/07/09) and here's some of what they had to say:

...Austen also wrote perhaps 3,000 letters over the course of her 41 years, most to her sister, Cassandra, who burned many and expurgated others that she believed reflected badly on Jane or other family members. Only 160 survive; the Morgan holds 51, more than any other institution. This exhibition offers a healthy sampling, some with pieces cut out in Cassandra’s quest for decorum...

...Because paper was expensive, Austen typically used a single sheet, folded in half to make four pages. But when she had more to say, she would fill all usable space, then (as was sometimes the custom) turn the sheet sideways and write perpendicularly over her own script. She completed one letter here by turning it upside down and writing between the lines...

...And though Austen was very much a private person — her novels were published anonymously at first — there is also a trace here of a public world that she mostly turned her back on, as if it might crassly impinge on her novelistic universe...

The show at The Morgan allows readers and fans of Austen's work to glimpse the woman beyond the page. In addition to the exhibit, there's also a short (16 minute) documentary, "The Divine Jane," which shows some of her letters and manuscripts and features contemporary writers and scholars speaking about Austen's importance. The film is directed by the Italian photographer (and filmmaker) Francesco Carrozzini. You can view the documentary while you're at The Morgan or see it HERE.

Picture of Jane Austen - Anonymous, British School (19th Century) - Morgan Library

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Place of Execution

Masterpiece Theater (PBS) has been airing a two-part film adaptation of A Place of Execution, a novel by Val McDermid, an award-winning British mystery writer.

Both the novel and the movie share a dual plot structure. One plot focuses on the murder investigation as it played out in real time in 1963, while the second plot re-examines the investigation in the present day. One character, George Bennett (the investigator from the original crime) becomes the bridge between the two plots and the two eras. Ms. McDermid's story--on the page or on the small screen--is a multi-layered tale about perception and reality, and it is a fascinating study in psychological suspense. Here is a synopsis of the storyline courtesy of PBS:

Modern-day London: Journalist Catherine Heathcote is making a documentary about Alison Carter, a schoolgirl who vanished from the English village of Scardale in 1963, sparking a major police hunt and making a hero of investigating officer George Bennett.

When George hastily withdraws his cooperation, Catherine is devastated and sets off for Scardale to demand an explanation, accompanied by her rebellious teenage daughter Sasha. As she tries to salvage her documentary, Catherine uncovers new information — but the truth may indict George, the man she so highly admires. A tragic turn of events threatens to silence Catherine's inquiry entirely.

1963: In his first missing person investigation, George Bennett carefully pieces together a case against one of Alison's family members. Incriminating evidence offers a strong link to the apparent murder scene. But under intense questioning, the suspect is unnervingly calm and unwavering — repeatedly claiming innocence.

For a limited time, PBS is enabling viewers to watch the film adaptation online. Part One is available for viewing now. Part Two will be available starting on November 9th. Log on HERE to learn more and tune in.

Photos from

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Kurt Vonnegut: Writing With Style

Dave Eggers, author of many highly-touted books, screenwriter for Where the Wild Things Are and Away We Go, and creator of McSweeney's (a literary journal) shared his review of Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction by the late Kurt Vonnegut in the New York Times Book Review (11/1/09).

I discovered (and fell in love with) Vonnegut's short fiction long before I ever seriously considered that storytelling could be a viable function of my life. I was always intrigued--and greatly influenced--by what my much more talented, creative and over-achieving sisters and brother were reading. One rainy day, I remember sneaking into my brother's room, scouring his bookshelves and borrowing his copy of Vonnegut's short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House. (The title is what lured me.) "Long Walk to Forever" is the story from that collection that stole my heart. It is a tale of stark realism about the possibilities of love. It's told simply and straightforwardly--no gimmicks or tricks--and the dialogue is pitch-perfect. I loved each story in Monkey House--the shifts in point-of-view were so refreshing, as were Vonnegut's dips into satire and futuristic fantasy--that I never did return that book to my brother's room. To this day, that well-read and worn paperback still sits on a shelf over my writing desk with many other books that have been my greatest teachers--in craft and in life.

If you want to read more about what Vonnegut had to say about the art of storytelling, San Diego State University published "How to Write With Style"--an excerpt from Vonnegut's book of essays, Palm Sunday (New York: Dial Press, 1999). In the piece, Mr. V suggests the following seven points to improve your writing:

1. Find a subject you care about
2. Do not ramble, though
3. Keep it simple
4. Have guts to cut
5. Sound like yourself
6. Say what you mean
7. Pity the readers

Link to the article for more insight into the above.
Great advice for writers--of all genres.

Photo of Kurt Vonnegut from State University of San Diego

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Horton Foote Legacy

The New Yorker recently featured an article on the life and work of Horton Foote (10/26/09 by John Lahr). In his writing, Foote "made meaning of the world he sought to preserve." He believed the first lesson of good writing was an ability to listen--to really listen. An inquisitive person by nature, he was "haunted by the often inexplicable result of how a person's life turned out." It led him to become a master storyteller for both the stage and screen. He won a Pulitzer Prize and two Academy Awards.

I had the privilege of meeting and speaking with Mr. Foote after seeing a revival of A Trip to Bountiful a few years ago. He was a strikingly humble and gracious man. (I also saw the last play he wrote before his death in March 2009, Dividing the Estate; I think it's his best.) In Foote's plays, "the big dramatic events happen offstage." Foote examined "the ripple not the wave. He was a quiet voice in noisy times." He won numerous awards and was probably best known for Tender Mercies, a film starring Robert Duvall, and for having written the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird (by Harper Lee). He is also credited for writing a brilliantly-inspired film adaption of "Tomorrow," a short story by William Faulkner.

Lahr states in the article: "It was not (Foote's) style, in life or in writing, to call attention to himself. As a result the quality of his work is high; the public awareness is low." If you're not familiar with Horton Foote's plays and/or his writing, you might want to catch "The Orphans' Home Cycle," a play in three parts that Foote wrote to "understand and forgive" his own father. It is currently being featured at the Signature Theater, which is honoring the Horton Foote Legacy for the 2009-2010 season.

Photo of Horton Foote by Marion Ettlinger/Corbis Outline

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Head, Heart

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go.
But even the earth will go, someday.
Hearts feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

--a short story by Lydia Davis

There's been a lot of buzz over The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis recently released (as a 752-page tome) by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The longest story tops out at nine pages (3-4 is the average), while others are as short as a single sentence. Each story--long or short--is a gem. The range of Davis's prose is intellectual, insightful, witty, poetic and always profound. It takes surgical-like precision to work in such brevity, and Davis is a master of language and form.

The New Yorker recently ran a feature on the book, as did The Village Voice.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Stairway to Bibliophile Heaven

Too many books?
Too little space?

The Bookshelf Staircase has become a London icon sporting "a classic design that frees up space in any small flat."

Levitate Architects remodeled this London apartment by creating "a new bedroom level and increasing the floor area of the flat by approximately one-third." The staircase is both the way to access the bedroom and a great place to store books. "With a skylight above lighting the staircase, it becomes the perfect place to stop and browse a tome," says Levitate's Tim Sloan, who also pointed out the unique structure of each step, allowing for anyone to comfortably sit down while searching for the perfect read . . . Something, huh?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Memorial Service for Frank McCourt

"In school if they told me write an essay of 150 words,
I'd write 500 words."
Frank McCourt

Symphony Space and the nationally-syndicated NPR radio program "Selected Shorts" announced today that they will be featuring a webcast of the memorial service (from 10/6/09)honoring the late author, Frank McCourt. Below is the press release:

Click here to view the event entitled, "Remembering the Remarkable Frank McCourt: An Evening of Reminiscence, Music, Poetry and Laughter." The video will be available until November 4th, courtesy of Susan Moldow, publisher of Scribner Books.

This memorial service celebrates Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish-American writer and educator. Mr. McCourt shared many memorable evenings at Symphony Space, performing passages of James Joyce’s Ulysses each year at Bloomsday on Broadway, and performing short stories at Selected Shorts: A Celebration of the Short Story.

Mr. McCourt, who passed away July 19 at age 78, taught in New York City’s school system for nearly 30 years; he is perhaps best known for Angela’s Ashes, his best-selling memoir of growing up in Limerick, Ireland, as well as his subsequent memoirs, ‘Tis and Teacher Man, and his children’s book, Angela and the Baby Jesus.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The (Professional) Bookworm

" . . . An interview on the air is so much more than what gets said. You hear the laughter, the emotional flow. And it’s only then that the listener starts to feel comfortable and really listens. That’s the point at which they say, 'I might read that book.' And I want to get the reader to that point. And it really involves a lot of give and take, a lot of emotional sharing. I generally read about six to eight hours a day, and try to read the author’s complete work before I interview them. And you’d be surprised at how few authors have ever met someone who’s read everything they’ve written. I’m like a mirror to them. Then they start trying to see themselves in the mirror, and then we’re really in something like the equivalent of a psychoanalytic transaction between a person and their image. That’s when you get the things that are generally interesting.

"I think we have a spiritual and imaginal dimension that I never hear referred to, so I wanted my half-hour to be a place where every kind of seriousness about the value of life — its preciousness or its wastefulness, its insanity, its possibility — could be a valued subject for conversation. And I wanted listeners to say, “God, I never hear people talking about this.” --from Malibu Magazine

He only talks about books he likes. He has an engaging voice--quiet, slightly nasal, yet somehow hypnotic--that epitomizes understatement. He asks sensitive, insightful questions that probe the foundations of literature--text and technique. Who is he? He's Michael Silverblatt, the host of Bookworm, a nationally-syndicated half-hour radio program (broadcast on KCRW in Los Angeles, CA) where he sits down with authors--with names like T.C. Boyle, Marilynne Robinson, Junot Diaz and Joan Didion--and talks, compellingly and personally, about books.

Silverblatt was always a "reading geek," as he calls himself. He studied literature at SUNY Buffalo and started grad school at Johns Hopkins University. Disillusioned with academia, he dropped out and headed for New York, but he found "the publishing world too insular and too peopled with young trust-fund-subsidized editors for his taste." In the 1980s, he moved to California and tried to write screenplays. During that time--to support himself, he worked at bookstores and read voraciously--his life took an unexpected turn. At a dinner party, the general manager from KCRW overheard Silverblatt discussing Russian poetry and, sensing his passion for literature, she invited Silverblatt to start a radio program that would later become Bookworm. That was 20 years ago. The rest is history.

I download podcasts of Bookworm regularly. This month, Oprah Magazine is running a profile on Silverblatt and his program. A great feature--it sheds light on the man who helps readers look through writers' eyes.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

EVENT: Upcoming Reading in The Village

I'm pleased to announce that I will be participating in a literary reading to celebrate the launch of the current issue of VIA: Voices in Italian Americana (Volume 20, November 2009). This literary journal--published for the past 20 years by the University of Central Florida and Bordighera Press--features a short story of mine.

I'll be reading a short section of the piece, along with other prose writers and poets whose work is also featured in VIA (Vol 20) including:

Phyllis Carito
Michael Cirelli
Edward DeFranco
Joanna Clapps Herman
Mary Giaimo
Maria Terrone
Robert Viscusi

The event is hosted by the new VIA Poetry Editor, Peter Covino
George Guida, Director

Copies of the latest issue of VIA will be on sale at the event!

Please join us @
183 W. 10th Street at 7th Avenue
Saturday, October 10 from 5-7 pm ($6 cover charge)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Elegance of Muriel Barbery

When The Elegance of the Hedgehog by French writer Muriel Barbery was released last year, I devoured the novel in one sitting. The structure intrigued me--very short chapters, confessional and intimate-like essays, which overlap to tell the story of Renee Michel, a 54 year-old concierge at a posh Paris apartment building. "I'm a widow, short, ugly, chubby; I have bunions on my feet and, on certain difficult mornings, it seems, the breath of a mammoth. But above all, I conform to the image assigned to concierges. It would never occur to anyone that I am better read than all these self-satisfied rich people." What a voice! This is a novel about social class, how people can be isolated (and misunderstood) even though they live together, and the power of art, literature and philosophy. Over the course of the story, Renee befriends Paloma, a 12 year-old girl from the building. She is a young idealist--disillusioned and cynical about the self-importance and vanity of the people who populate her world (her tone is slightly reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, if he were a bit more philosophical)--who intends to commit suicide by her 13th birthday. Not to fret. In the union of these two (very different, solitary) souls there resides great comic relief and in the end, a life-affirming message.

Just released is Gourmet Rhapsody, the novel Muriel Barbery wrote prior to The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Both books share a similar literary structure, many of the same characters and they are both set in the same Paris apartment building on Rue de Grenelle. The themes, too, remain but in Gourmet Rhapsody, Barbery adds the sensuality of food and mortality to the story of the last 48-hours in the life of a powerful, famous (and very arrogant) French food critic. "I am the greatest food critic in the world," Pierre Arthens, the protagonist announces at the beginning of the book. "I am going to die and there is a flavor that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it." In the story, Arthens, a brilliant yet heartless man, confronts his mortality by "rhapsodizing" about his experiences with food--recalling, in luscious detail, foods such as bread, tomatoes, sushi and mayonnaise, as well as mentally revisiting his grandmother's table, a country farmhouse and a mistress' kitchen. But another side of Arthens emerges via monologues from the people who willingly (and unwillingly) shared their lives with him--his devoted and long-suffering wife; his bitter, drug-addicted son; his unloved daughter and grand-daughter; two mistresses; and even his cat. It's a fascinating, beautifully-rendered story about a complicated man, his life and death, and how, in the end, the evocation of his experiences with food defined his desires, emotions and the goals of his life.

Muriel Barbery is an intelligent, colorful writer, one to watch. Do yourself a favor and don't miss either of these bittersweet, redemptive books.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Best of the Best

The National Book Foundation is allowing the general public to vote for The Best of the National Book Awards in Fiction. The nominees are comprised of past winners and they are:

1) The Stories of John Cheever (John Cheever)
2) Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
3) Collected Stories of William Faulkner (William Faulkner)
4) Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories (Flannery O'Connor)
5) Gravity's Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon)
6) The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (Eudora Welty)

So far, Flannery O'Connor is the front runner...Hooray! Cast your vote here. By doing so, you might win a trip to the NBA ceremony in NYC!

Once on the site, be sure to click on the pictures of each author to link to other information about each book and author--as well as thoughts about each books from other writers, former nominees, and acclaimed NBA Judges like Alice Elliott Dark.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What Makes A Reader Care?

A creative writing instructor of mine once stressed how important it was to read books to the very end—even if we didn't like them. He believed writers could learn from work that didn't really appeal to them and/or hold their interests—possibly as much or more than work that did. As a disciplined person—at least in my reading and writing habits (red wine and extra-cheese pizza do not apply)—I’ve tried to hold fast to that rule. When I close a book, I sit with things in order to pin-point what worked and what didn't in order to apply what I’ve learned to my own writing. We bring so much of our own lives to what we read, as well as to our interpretations and the judgments we make about what we read. I've come to the conclusion that it always helps a reader's journey if they care about a character, but what makes a reader care . . . A sense of familiarity? Empathy? Anger? Frustration? A redeeming quality? Hoping the character will transform in a way that will be fulfilling to us by the end of the book? All of which leads me to the larger question of do you really have to "like" a character and agree with his/her choices in order to enjoy and fully appreciate a book?

I recently finished The Film Club by David Gilmour, a Canadian novelist and film critic. This thought-provoking memoir is about a father who allows his troubled, 15 year-old son to drop out of school with the stipulation that he'll watch three movies a week with Dad, and together, they will discuss them, in depth. I really looked forward to this read, as I was raised on a steady diet of movies since I was kid. The premise of Gilmour’s ultimatum to his son was the hook that enticed me. And while the plot appeared to be about a father and son who spend time together watching great movies, the story evolved into one more about a father trying to understand a son (and vice-versa) and parenthood—the challenges, joys, and the tendency to make mistakes.

I am a reader of mostly female-themed domestic fiction and it makes me wonder what kept me engaged through all 240 pages of this memoir. I am not a father or a son, and my own father (or mother, for that matter) would never have proposed such an educational ultimatum to me nor would they have been so liberal about alcohol and drug use and teenage sexual exploits. There were times during the read when I fiercely disagreed with Gilmour’s parenting style and the choices he made. But he did offer me an honest glimpse of an unfamiliar world. In straightforward, deft prose—and through candid, often heart-wrenching, storytelling—Gilmour revealed his foibles, as well as those of his son, as they both grappled with “the experiment” and tried to find their respective places in the world. Flawed characters trying to learn and grow—and do the right thing . . . in that, there is great universality.

The Film Club (a memoir) by David Gilmour
(Twelve, Hardcover, 9780446199292, 256pp.)
Publication Date: May 2008
To purchase this book via INDIEBOUND click HERE

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What Becomes A Novel Most?

Writing is a subjective business. While one person might love a book, another might find they can’t get beyond Chapter One. In a review in The Washington Post of A Gate at the Stairs—a much-anticipated novel by Lorrie Moore, a coveted and acclaimed short story writer—Ron Charles hailed the book, but referred to it as "an unhurried tale." Further on in the review, Charles states, "I should warn you that Moore is a lot more interested in her narrator than her plot. There is a fair amount of precocious riffing in this novel, a syncopation of sweet and mordant beats. Things do happen--even startling, gripping things--but any reader who needs that to stay engaged will have drifted away 200 pages earlier during one of Tassie's (the protagonist’s) soliloquies. Much of her fascination with words and wordplay is amusing, but some of it seems too clever by half, along with her super-duper writing-seminar descriptions of the weather that are polished to distracting brilliance."

I admire
Ron Charles's reviews. He is a conscientious, sensitive reader. He obviously spends quality time with books and takes great pains to fully absorb them in order to write such thoughtful reviews. But in a world (and an industry) where sensationalism often prevails, Charles's assessment of A Gate at the Stairs accommodates contemporary reader expectations. I'm well aware that publishing has become less about writing and more about book sales. But it seems that novels vying for bookstores must strive, first and foremost, for hook and page-turning ability—why else would Ron Charles need to issue that "warning"? Of course, an author of Lorrie Moore's literary stature and caliber of craft can cry herself to the bank. But why should it be that some books—gently-paced, well-written books by lesser-known or even unknown writers—those that serve quiet shifts in plot and subtle character transformations, are often considered of inferior quality and marginalized?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Spare Room

"My initial reason for writing is that I need to shape things so I can make them bearable or comprehensible to myself. It's my way of making sense of things that I've lived and seen other people live, things I'm afraid of, or that I long for."~Helen Garner

PREMISE: A woman in Melbourne, Australia offers her spare room to an old friend who lives in Sydney and is seeking an alternative medical treatment to battle terminal cancer.

In The Spare Room, Australian author Helen Garner returns to fiction for the first time in 15 years. It was surely worth the wait, as her latest offers a realistic (often wry) examination of the tug-of-war between life and death, patients and caregivers. The plot of this very brief (192 page) novel, that reads more like a memoir, is obvious. However, if you are a conscientious reader you will recognize (and appreciate) how small, subtle moments change lives, and you'll be rapt by Garner's attention to detail. Her best scenes are understated but nuanced in such a way that they become immensely powerful. Take note of the graceful, concise writing in Chapter One (a few short paragraphs on pages 4-5), where Helen, in the midst of preparing her spare room for her friend's arrival, breaks a mirror. It is a chilling moment that foreshadows, on many different levels, all that is to come between two, very different women--Helen, the caregiver, who has lived a "traditional" life as a wife and mother and Nicola, the patient, who has lived (or has she?) a more artistic, "bohemian" lifestyle. The circumstances that reunite these two old friends will test their strengths and weaknesses, their belief systems and coping mechanisms. Helen Garner has written a deeply-affecting novel that is a beautiful tribute to the power and frailty of friendship and how it can transform amid the challenges of life.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Do Not Deny Me

A cynical, burned-out drama professor unexpectedly bonds with a mediocre student. . . A psychic works at the Department of Motor Vehicles . . . A man in mid-life goes on a quest to build himself a tree house . . . A caretaker wife becomes wicked and vile toward her husband who has suffered a stroke. . . An elderly woman, with a passion for quilting, befriends a troubled little girl in her neighborhood . . . In Do Not Deny Me, the latest short story collection by award-winning writer Jean Thompson, the lives of regular folks intersect with life-changing events that emerge from the ordinary. "What intrigues me are the interior lives of anyone you might meet during the course of an unremarkable day, the possibilities for tragedy and drama that exist in any life," Jean Thompson said in an article recently published in The Chicago Tribune.

I discovered the writing of Jean Thompson more than a decade ago. I was completely riveted by "Mercy" (a story about a cop and a grieving mother) in her collection, Who Do You Love? Since then, I've read everything she's written--short fiction, novels and
essays--and I've not been disappointed. Jean Thompson is a master storyteller who writes compelling, realistic, thought-provoking gems. Her novels (City Boy, Wide Blue Yonder, My Wisdom, The Woman Driver) and her other books of short stories (Throw Like a Girl, The Gasoline Wars, Little Face and Other Stories) are well-crafted, literary page-turners. Layered around the deep, emotional core of her tales are characters who seem like people you know--warts and all--struggling to overcome challenges in their lives.

Jean Thompson was recently asked her thoughts about reading fiction: "People read for diversion and entertainment, but also, I believe, because they hope to become passionately engaged in other worlds and other sensibilities. And because we are language-oriented creatures, language opens portals for us, helps us to understand and interpret our own lives."
Jean Thompson is one of those rare, artful writers who, especially with Do Not Deny Me, crafts stories that offer readers a glimpse of themselves. And it is because of her tender irony and the gripping realism of her work that she is keeping the short story form alive--and well. (which serializes a story each week) recently featured a Jean Thompson short. Link to read "A Winter Husband"

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It's Complicated

Have your heard the latest? Hollywood Maven Nancy Meyers has a new movie coming out at Christmas. Hooray! In case you aren't familiar with her work, Ms. Meyers is a writer-director-producer who has been at the helm of making sophisticated, lady-led romantic comedies since the eighties. She writes great roles for and about women mired in a peculiar combination of success and failure. Professionally, her protagonists are driven overachievers, but their personal lives are often a mess. Therein is the perfect quandary to set a Nancy Meyers story. Her canon of cinematic work offers a plethora of great scenes . . . Think Private Benjamin's first day in the army barracks. Career woman Diane Keaton in the I-have-no-idea-how-to-hold-a-child scene in Baby Boom. Helen Hunt attuned to Mel Gibson hearing her thoughts in What Women Want. Diane Keaton's embarrassment when Jack Nicholson accidentally spies her naked in Something's Gotta Give. And Cameron Diaz, in the throes of a broken heart, going on a carbohydrate food-shopping blitz in The Holiday. Like fine wine, Nancy Meyers, the most hopeful-romantic screenwriter in the business, grows better with age.

In the upcoming It's Complicated she's written a story about a 20-year marriage that ends because of an infamous younger woman scenario. When the husband's new relationship sours, the first wife becomes her ex-husband's mistress. See, it really is complicated. The film stars
Meryl Streep as the jilted wife/lover and two men who vie for her affections--Alec Baldwin as the rotten, no-good husband and Steve Martin as Meryl's architect/potential new beau. Can hardly wait to see what memorable scenes Meyers conjures in her latest . . . too bad it's only August and not December. Be sure to take a peak at behind the scenes with the cast.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Day at the Beach

The sun is blinding. You stare out at the waves and feel the sand between your toes, hear the surf crashing at your bare feet . . . Packed alongside your suntan lotion and sunglasses, you've stuffed in a couple of books . . . Best Friends Forever the latest novel by Jennifer Weiner? The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger? Or maybe you are more "literary" and you've toted along a collection of well-crafted short stories like Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri? Or do you lean more toward a page-turning classic like Rebecca?

What if the tenets of summer were turned inside-out and instead of simply settling down with a book at the beach, you were able to bring one of your favorite literary characters to life and take him/her with you to experience the sand and surf. Who would you choose--man, woman, child, dog, extraterrestrial--and why? Maurice Bendrix? Chauncey Gardiner?Arthur Clennam? Rhett Butler? Holden Caufield? Frank Bascombe? Fitzwilliam Darcy? Henry Beck? Newland Archer? Maybe even Lorelei from The Dogs of Babel? Susie Salmon? Annie Wilkes or Paul Sheldon? Bridget Jones? If you can't narrow down your list, maybe you ought to throw an imaginary beach party and invite a whole bunch!
The Washington Post polled a handful of well-established authors on this very question . . . Some interesting thoughts.
Photo - "Palm Beach Surf" by Kathleen Gerard