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

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater by Frank Bruni has finally been released. If you're a foodie and a book lover, you can attest to all the hype and hoopla that's been surrounding this memoir for months. With its release, the world will finally get a good look at the covert restaurant critic from The New York Times, while he dishes about his history and passion for food. Weighing in at more than 350 pages, you'll learn how Bruni's Italian family treated cooking and eating with a zealot-like fervor, how he's been a yo-yo dieter for years (he went on the Atkins diet with his mother when he was just a kid), and he reveals his tricks and pseudonyms while skulking about the New York dining scene. Leavened with wit and good humor, no wonder heavyweight memoirists like Augusten Burroughs, David Sedaris, and Anne Lamott have blurbed the book. Order a pizza, crack open the cover and dig in!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Richard Russo, Misogynist?

Why did Newsweek magazine allow Jennie Yabroff to slam author Richard Russo, calling him a misogynist? "In That Old Cape Magic, the protagonist, Griffin, is a classic Russo male: unable to get over his childhood (featuring, of course, a domineering mother and feckless father) and act on his own behalf." Yabroff goes on to say that "for the men of Russo's world, flaws are a good thing. . . women aren't afforded the luxury of conflict or shortcomings." That's far from the truth.

Richard Russo is a high-profile, Pulitzer Prize winner. He is an author whose often complex books mine the terrain of masculine self-discovery and how many people--flawed men and women--grapple with the idea of trying to connect to and feel at home in the world. He's shown great versatility with Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs and in his latest, That Old Cape Magic - a comic, road trip novel written in a similiar style and tone to Russo's first book, Straight Man. (Hilarious!) Men are always at the center of Russo's novels (that's their appeal), but according to Yabroff, "The way Russo tells it, women are bitches, bovine, dumb (but shrewd); like witches, and their familiars, cats, they have magical powers to summon misfortune on any man who crosses them." You certainly don't need to read between the lines to recognize how Yabroff's insulting assessment of Russo's fictional women and his writing, in general, is a vicious and poorly substantiated attack. Excellent rebuttal essay about the Newsweek article by Bethanne Patrick over at BookStudio.

Photo of Richard Russo by Elena Seibert

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dogs in Books . . . A Winning Combination

What do an elderly couple with an aging dachshund, the selling of prime Manhattan real estate and a potential terrorist attack all have in common? You'd think nothing, until you read Heroic Measures, a new novel from author Jill Ciment. It's a short, well-plotted, quietly nuanced thriller where part of the story is even filtered through the point-of-view of an injured, elderly dachshund. The bonds between dogs and people are intricate and photographer, Jill Krementz (widow of author, Kurt Vonnegut) has captured the presence of these four-legged creatures in the lives of writers. Canine companions have a long history in literature, from Anton Chekov's short story, The Lady with the Dog, to contemporary memoirs such as Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas and Pack of Two by the late Caroline Knapp. So whether it's fiction or nonfiction . . . people love dogs and dogs sell books. It's a package deal. Woof! Woof!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Circles of Influence

The way you see nature depends on whatever has influenced your way of seeing.

Georgia O'Keeffe

In an exhibition entitled, Dove/O'Keeffe: Circle of Influence currently on display at the Clark Art Gallery (MA), a parallel is drawn to show the influence and visual affinities that existed between two artists--Georgia O'Keeffe, who is celebrated as one of the most significant American visual artists of the 20th Century, and Arthur Dove, America's first abstract painter. O'Keeffe credits the work of Dove as her primary introduction to abstract art. She admired the bold, vibrant color and forms depicted in Dove's art and that admiration inspired O'Keeffe to make her own abstract drawings in charcoal and watercolor.

Just as reading across literary disciplines can better serve one's writing, so can being exposed to and experiencing other art forms. O'Keeffe is quoted as saying, "Art, life and consciousness are interconnected." With that in mind, perhaps the more you examine your own artistic influences--visual, literary or otherwise--the more enlightened you will be about your own work and its direction.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Love Letter to a City

Pat Conroy is back . . . after a 14 year hiatus. South of Broad is his latest novel, and it pays homage to the city of Charleston and the low country of South Carolina. In prose as beautifully-rendered as in The Prince of Tides, South of Broad is a devoutly Catholic novel which, at the core, centers on the story of a man grappling with his brother's suicide. While the subject matter is deeply probing, not to fear--Pat Conroy's work is, as always, life-affirming. Did you catch the interview with the author on Good Morning America? If you missed it, link here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Play's the Thing!

Reading across literary disciplines--especially reading plays--is key to the development of prose fiction writing. The whole Show, Don't Tell adage applies as does the nature of dialogue, plotting, pace, and the demands of structure. The added bonus of reading a play is being able to experience how an author's words and characterizations from the page come to life--or don't--upon the stage.

I recently attended exceptional premieres at the renowned Williamstown Theatre Festival. But the play I can't stop thinking about was an abstract, existential, thought-provoking gem artfully staged and performed by The Chester Theatre Company, a very small regional theater in the Berkshires. Bravo!

A Body of Water by Lee Blessing is a puzzling story with unlikely narrative twists that are poignant, amusing, and at the same time, truly frightening. The premise is this: An attractive, middle-aged couple wakes up one day to find themselves in a living room facing spectacular views of hills and a lake. The trouble is, they don't know how they got there, who they are, or the nature of their relationship. Over the course of five scenes and the crisp, snappy dialogue of three actors, the playwright philosophically probes the tenuous realities of memory and identity, life and love. In the end, the questions asked by Blessing--more than the answers--are what make this play linger in your mind long after you've left the theater. If you can't see the fine performance at Chester, I'd recommend giving the play a read. As a reader and/or a writer, you'll be riveted.

Photo "Home by The Sea" (Ocean Drive, Newport, RI) by Kathleen Gerard

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Eat, Pray, Stop Traffic

Traffic snarled in NYC this past weekend where Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem (Love in the Time of Cholera, Vicky Christina Barcelona) are filming an adaptation of the bestselling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert. The story is about a divorcee seeking meaning in life and what better place for the protagonist of the story to begin that search than in a bookstore. BookCourt, an indie bookshop in Brooklyn, makes a cameo in the film. Hooray for hyping indie bookstores--in real life and on the big screen.

To learn more about Elizabeth Gilbert and read some of her thoughts about writing, link here:

Read More, Stress Less

The Dog Days of Hot Summer are here . . . reading any good books lately? If so, you're doing your body good--very good, as a matter of fact. According to an article published in the Telegraph (UK), reading offers "ultimate relaxation." The altered state of a readers' consciousness--even reading silently for as little as six minutes--works more effectively at reducing stress than listening to music or playing video games. So when the going gets tough, maybe it's time to retreat with Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks or even Janet Evanovich. Reading words penned on the page might be just what you need to chill out.
Photo by Getty Images

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Winner on The Writing Life

"The job of writers is to arrange their lives in a way that continues to keep them writing." Elizabeth Strout, as stated on Writers on Writing, KCRW

Wonderful Washington Post feature on the author of Olive Kitteridge, a novel-in-stories, which won the Pulitzer Prize (2009). If you aren't familiar with the work of Elizabeth Strout (read also the novels Amy & Isabel, Abide with Me), you're truly missing out.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Bon Appetit !

From life/blog to the page . . .

From page/cyberspace to the screen . . .

Brilliant Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail) has written and directed, Julie & Julia, a story about two women--Julia Child, Master Chef and author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Julie Powell, a woman who wrote a blog (and later a book) documenting her vow to cook her way through Child's book, 524 recipes in 365 days. Wow! The film cuts back and forth between the lives of these two women foodies, living and cooking in different eras. Like the books and blog upon which this film is based, Julie & Julia explores the ways in which passion, hunger and ambition fuel our lives. Oh, and it's about love, too. Food, love and the stories of lives well-lived . . . on the page, on the screen or in real life, it doesn't get much better than that. Delicioso!

To read more about Julie Powell and her journey from blog to page to screen, link here:

Photo "Fig Heart" by Kathleen Gerard