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.