Saturday, February 28, 2004

Calling All Writers

Monday begins the most dreaded month in my year. I confess to loathing March. I have many reasons for this which shall go unidentified at this time. Suffice it to say, I am desperate to enliven this month. I realize it's not March until Monday, but why wait?

Today's idea: Are you a writer of any description? Could I possibly entice you to share a brief story of a success you've had with your writing in the past six months? Perhaps a long-awaited project finally off the ground, perhaps a recent or first sale, or a meeting with a new fellow writer? Anything at all! Please send your comments to my email address listed on the right and I will post.
Saturday morning...the chickadees are singing their "All's well with the world" song of spring. And I face an office that is inundated with reading material, so much so that it's hard for me to focus on any one project. Weekend task: massive organization required.

So! I imagine you may have heard that Monica Ali has been awarded the Kiriyama Prize, for the best work of fiction about people living in the Pacific Rim and South Asia. I just picked up Brick Lane this week and have only read as far as the first couple of chapters, but the book begins with a bang--extraordinarily intense writing. Power-charged. Of course, it's impossible to tell if a book will sustain the punch it carries in the first few chapters, but I'm impressed. Brick Lane has definitely ensnared me. If you're browsing in a bookstore this weekend, check out the first chapter about the birth of Nazneen in a Bangladeshi village. Wow.

The dilemma facing me now is that my book group has decided to read The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri for our meeting in March. I have difficulty reading consecutive books about women struggling in cultures that stultify and oppress them, so I don't know what I'll do. What I do know is that I thought Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies was one of the finest short story collections I've ever read. And I do intend to read The Namesake at some point.

For those new to my blog: When I provide a link on an author, I strive to provide access to a lengthy interview.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Oh, no...I meant to blog today, and now I know what I want to blog about, but I simply cannot do it, I am so tired. Forgive me. What happened? At my blogging hour, I received a phone call from Kitty asking if Ken and I would like to join her and Sid for dinner at our favorite Italian place. Of course we wanted to, so off we went and so the blog languishes. As far as the literary part of our conversation was concerned, we discussed the addictiveness of Book TV (CSPAN). More early tomorrow morning, I promise.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Have you visited the Women's Review of Books lately? The articles and reviews are usually thought-provoking and well done. I especially appreciate the feminist viewpoint which is so difficult to find in the popular press these days. Could someone please tell me what's so bad about feminism? I missed the boat somewhere between 1980 and 2004.

Why is feminism such a dirty word among some young people? I remember when I was working at an incredible children's bookstore in the early 1990s, there was a young woman who'd recently graduated from Smith. She complained that she'd had feminism shoved down her throat there, presumably from the faculty and administration. I have heard similar stories from other women who attended Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and other so-called elite institutions. What a disaster! What do feminists in the academy think they're doing? Are they, in part, responsible for the dread some young people have of feminism? I really can't say anymore because I've been working at my desk and doing solitary research in libraries for years, and haven't a clue what's going on in academe.

But back to my original topic. Check out the reviews and the back issues. Some very enlightening reading.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

If you have idle time at 5 p.m. EST Monday through Friday, tune in with RealPlayer or your equivalent to an always stimulating radio program that frequently includes author interviews. Dave Beck's The Beat broadcasts on Seattle's NPR station. Although today's show, featuring an interview with novelist Octavia Butler (author of Kindred), will not be available immediately after the broadcast, it may appear in the "Online Archives" in about a week's time. Check out the archives for details about other programs. FYI, Nancy Pearl, the Seattle librarian and author of Book Lust, reviews books at the end of the program every Monday afternoon.

An update: I am so overwhelmed by all the unread books in my office, my brain is on a perpetual buzz.

Monday, February 23, 2004

I hit the jackpot this afternoon. The Canton Library, the new library which was so devastated by burst pipes in January, has reopened on a limited basis. The circulation and two adjacent rooms are open with the new fiction and nonfiction. It opened today for the first time at one and I was there at 1:20, knowing I'd have first dibs on loads of new (within the last year or so) books. I chose Brick Lane by Monica Ali and Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee, two books I'm so curious about because of all I've heard. I also picked up Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer, Gulag by Anne Applebaum (a historical tour de force, believe me, because I borrowed it a couple of months ago and read parts of it), and The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. I also borrowed four books about New York. So...too bad I have to work! And tonight Ken is going to expect me to watch The Forsyte Saga with him. I am enjoying the series, but the books are pulling at me.

University of Massachusetts Press is my favorite university publisher. I haven't a clue who selects their list, but I find I'm interested in just about everything they publish--nonfiction, that is. When I was at the Wellesley Free Library a month or so ago, I happened upon a UMass Press novel, The Last Days of Publishing by Tom Engelhardt. Now I have to confess that I read the entire book and am incapable of describing the plot. The fact that I am confessing is that I did not stop reading when it became clear that the plot was hidden somewhere in the manic antics of the author. The story lines are so confused that I gave up trying to keep them straight. In spite of that, Engelhardt, a former senior editor at Pantheon, has his main character make many amusing observations about publishing.

So sorry, folks! I need to add links and finish the previous paragraph, but it's essential that I leave the office now to cook the casserole I promised for our dinner tonight. I really can't stand taking the time to cook dinner--I hate it. Links later. Bye.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

"You can no more win a war than an earthquake!"
Jeannette Rankin, peace activist, first woman ever elected to Congress

I'm reading Women on War: An International Anthology of Writings from Antiquity to the Present, edited by Daniela Gioseffi, published by The Feminist Press at CUNY. This is a fascinating, award-winning collection, filled with short writings--stories, memoirs, poetry, essays--that speak of women's experiences and views on war. First published in 1990, the second edition was published last year. Now reading an excerpt from The Wind Blows Away Our Words, Doris Lessing's book about the Soviet war in Afghanistan. More on this soon...

New York, Here I Come

This morning I made hotel reservations for our trip to New York City. Time for a little unrestrained glee. Yahoo! We're going in a month, around the time of our anniversary. We're taking the train down (the Amtrak station is 2 miles from the house; that makes it the only way to go). If you have a minute, please send me tips on any of the fun, literary New York spots you like to haunt. We're going to be staying on the Upper West Side, so great cafes, bookstores, not too expensive places to eat would be great, too. Thanks!

By the way, where in Brooklyn does Paul Auster hang out?

Saturday, February 21, 2004

I realize I haven't done any decent literary musing for days and days. When I was at the library last week, I picked up Dislocation: Stories from a New Ireland, a 2003 collection from Carroll and Graf. Not all the writers live in Ireland, though all are Irish. When I checked out the contributors, I was excited to see that most are of my vintage--born anywhere from the early 50s to the early 60s. The writers' bios include a history of their most significant published writings. I love it when contributors' lists are that detailed.

I'm not a huge fan of short stories, generally, though I do read several collections a year. Last year I was wild for A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray. His writing is so clear, so startling. He has a unique voice, which is so crucial to the success of a story. If you check the archives, I blogged about A Few Short Notes on October 7th. Check out the links there--I think there's an interview with Murray.

Conversations with American Women Writers is still by my side, though I'll have to return it to the library soon. I don't want to! The conversations are full of novelists' reflections on the writing process. I was interested to read about Lynn Freed, a writer from South Africa who now resides in the U.S. She's both a novelist and short-story writer; her most recent novel is The House of Women, a New York Times Notable Book from 2002. I drooled over her description of time spent at writers' retreats:

There is the blessing of peace in a retreat that happens to suit my fraught nature. I arrive in a place like Yaddo, and I sink immediately in a sort of peace from life that I seem to be able to find nowhere else. It has something to do with the way the spirit settles there, away from the noise of my life. But there is also the fact that one is both left alone and taken care of. There are the days in silence, to work, and then the evenings in the company of others who have been working. It is magic. I often write more there in a month than I do otherwise in six months, or more.

To my Auster fans, I am a third of the way through The Book of Illusions. Wowee--incroyable. Oh, dear. How's my French spelling?

Friday, February 20, 2004

Had a lovely day off yesterday. Went on an expedition with my young chums to the Museum of Fine Arts. Because of the school vacation week, the place was packed with kids! This is a good thing; I'm not complaining, but wow! My pals enjoyed the Traveling Scholars Exhibition--lots of unusual, quirky installations, paintings, and objects. My thirteen-year-old friend was dying to see Greek sculpture, and had a wonderful time spinning yarns from Greek mythology as he guided me from one to the next. His favorite sculpture was one of Dionysus with the Meaneads. (I know I'm spelling both of those names incorrectly; forgive me). He enjoyed scandalizing me with tales of their orgies and I pretended to be shocked. His sister, being three years younger, was predictably bored by the whole Greek scene, but definitely perked up when we landed at Cabot's Ice Cream in Newtonville for sundaes. I can't believe I ate a large sundae--ice cream, fudge, whipped cream, the works! Talk about orgies! It was worth it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Still turning to Carolyn Heilbrun's The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty for those hard-core nuggets of wisdom. In one chapter, she reflects on her association with May Sarton, the poet, memoirist, and novelist.

I've been interested in reading her thoughts about Sarton because her (Sarton's)Journal of a Solitude (scroll down the link for description) is one of my all-time favorite books, one that seems new to me every time I pick it up. Heilbrun casts a sympathetic eye on Sarton, but is hard on her at the same time. Many writers have criticized Sarton harshly, and the attacks tend to get personal. Heilbrun notes Sarton's selfishness, her inability to take criticism, but applauds her gifts as well. After the publication of the bestselling Journal of a Solitude, Sarton was besieged by readers who believed they knew her intimately from the book. I can just picture this because the journal invites the reader to share her world, a still and radiant place in which to think, observe nature, and write.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

For you Paul Auster fans out there (so far I know of one other than I!), have you heard this audio interview from 1999? From the New York Times audio archives.
I guess I mentioned that I was reviewing Dresden: Tuesday, February 13 by Frederick Taylor for The Patriot Ledger, but I didn't say much else about it. Taylor spent over a decade researching the events of that terrible night when a firebombing destroyed the city and killed 40,000 civilians, mostly women and children. It's an excellent book--eminently readable, although not a narrative classic, by any means. Taylor is most thorough in his discussion of the air war in Europe, especially the all-out Allied bombing that occurred at the end of the war. His depiction of the firebombing was horrifying but well done.

I'm so aggravated that the review did not end up going on the Ledger's website.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

I had high hopes for The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier. After all, I like historical novels, particularly those set in the medieval era, and I liked Girl with a Pearl Earring. But I confess I read only as far as page 88. Bored out of my skull, I then skimmed ahead, to catch a glimpse of the rest of the book and, unfortunately, my initial impressions were confirmed. Unless you are fascinated by the intricacies of fifteenth-century tapestry weaving, this title may hold little interest for you.

I believe this book could have been saved with one or two or even three central, thoroughly developed characters to carry the story. Instead, Chevalier makes the creation of the tapestries the focus of the book. There are far too many characters for a novel of 250 pages, and they're flat. They have normal human desires, perhaps, but they don't come alive. Part of this lack may be due to the stilted dialogue. Chevalier's attempts to make her characters' speech "sound" like the fifteenth century are not convincing.

Reviews are mixed, so check out the link above if you want to see what the critics think.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

More About the Naughty Nannies

So why is the New York publishing world so hell bent on vilifying the authors of The Nanny Diaries? (See my post of February 9). Okay, so Emma McLaughlin's and Nicola Kraus's second novel, Citizen Girl, is a disaster and the nannies are not buying the idea of doing a rewrite. So, all right, Random House, let 'em walk. Pots of money went down the drain, but RH bears at least half of the responsiblity there. The scuttlebutt is that the nannies are "difficult and demanding," a reputation that will make it nearly impossible for them to get another book published by the biggies. Doesn't this sound a little like what happened to Deborah Winger in Hollywood? If the rumormongers with the biggest axes to grind are to be believed, the nannies insisted upon "professional hair and makeup for all appearances." And is that what's at the root of the "difficult and demanding" thing?

This story reeks of vengeful angst and the ones to suffer will be the authors, who have no means at the moment to defend themselves, if their story would even be believed at this point. I'm not sticking up for what may be two spoiled brats; I'm defending the position of the author in high-stakes negotiations with publishers who, let's face it, almost always win and who always have more power. Yes, always. Ninety-five percent of writers have precious little firepower in their arsenal when compared with the big publishers' cannonade, so, in defense of writers, please join me in not heeding the call to jump on the publishers' bandwagon dissing the nannies.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Ask and you shall!

After I spent a half-hour journaling this morning about where I want to be in ten years, the novelist M.J. Rose emailed me about her experiences with five-year plans (see yesterday's post):

As for your five year plan. I have tried it twice.

First time failed miserably, second time succeeded but only three weeks before the end date. I think the trick with a five year plan is to be flexible and reevaluate it all the time.
Meaning - first time I said I'd get published in five years but never stopped to check on how I was doing or if I needed to change the way I was going about it. Next time I did it, I not only said I'd get published in five years but I set out a year by year plan of what had to happen each year so that I'd get to the end.

And be prepared to scrap the way you are going about reaching the goal half way through. With my second try I realized that trying to get published the way I'd read about and the way the industry usually worked was not going to work and so year three I took a new direction. Year five I got the original goal. But the way I got there was like flying from Boston, via China, to get to New York.


Thanks, M.J.! Once I thought about her advice, I rushed over to her website, to try to find out how she got published that was not the way she'd read about or how these things usually work.

After receiving some intriguing rejections, she decided to self-publish her first novel online and rally 'round some strategic internet marketing techniques. The rest, as they say, is history. I love it!!!

Anybody else want to share your experiences with five-year or ten-year plans? How about trying it right now and then email your thoughts?

More about the Naughty Nannies

Rats! I hear Ken at the door, expecting that hot meal which is not ready. I'll give you the whole scoop and my take on it tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

What are your thoughts?

I'm trying to grab enough time for a familiar exercise that seems like a good idea to try now. I'm going to sit down and grok out an answer to the question, "Where do you want to be in five years?" Problem is, I'd much prefer to respond to a ten-year time span; a decade would give me more time to accomplish lofty goals. After all, it took me more than five years to write Women During the Civil War. I don't think five years is enough time for me to get to where I want to go. But I'll do it anyway, as painful as it is.

Just wondering if any of you have tried answering this question lately. If so, what was your experience like? It does seem a good way to make sure that the path one is trodding is in sync with one's long-term goals, or should I say fantasies?

Why not email me your comments? I know my comments section is not available. (Haloscan is just not working for me!) If you email me at the address given to the right, I will post your thoughts. Also, if you know how I can get a decent comments section added to this blog, please let me know that, too!

Monday, February 09, 2004

So the authors of The Nanny Diaries are having a little bit of trouble getting their second novel published. They're on their third agent, and even with her (Suzanne Gluck) swinging for them, Random House has rejected their manuscript, declaring it unpublishable in its present state. I guess agents #1 and #2 probably tried to communicate that verdict to their clients, but, as sometimes happens between agents and authors, there was a conflict of opinions.

In the impossible world of publishing these days, agents are full of bad news. They are honest; they tell you what will sell. Unfortunately, very, very little will sell; publishers don't want to take risks, so they will buy only what is hot right now. That doesn't leave much wiggle room for the author. What do I do when my agent gives me advice that I don't want to take? I do what she thinks will work, and when that proves impossible, as of course it must when one tries to make one's creative juices flow in someone else's veins, I do what I want (based on my own detailed analyses of the market) and hope that publishers decide that what I've got is what they've got to have. I don't know. I'll probably be searching for Agent #2 myself.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

As I mentioned in Friday's post, I'm reading Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 by Frederick Taylor. It's just been released, so there aren't many links available yet. I'll be reviewing it for The Patriot Ledger this coming weekend (February 14 edition), so I've got to hurry up and finish it so I can start writing. In the first hundred pages (where I am now), Taylor gives the history of "The Florence on the Elbe," as Dresden has been known, and the history of aerial bombing. I'm eager to get to the events leading up to the firebombing of Dresden, which is what the book is really about.

In Praise of Winter Hiking

I realize it's been a bitterly cold winter, but I must say I have enjoyed the outdoors so much in spite of it all. The lack of snowcover has been most welcome as Sophie and I have hiked twice a day nearly everyday, in the Blue Hills, at the estate, or on the little golf course around the corner. She has been delirious with happiness everytime we head out, racing, prancing, kicking up her heels, or running with her belly low to the ground.

I believe I've noted this before, but the more frigid it is, the more exuberant she is. Her high spirits are infectious, and I find myself laughing and running with her, so thrilled am I to have her for a companion. It will be a sad day when the ticks hatch out and we can no longer roam the fields and woods. I don't think she will understand. I will be able to bring her to a few wild places that have wide, mown trails, but she will have to be on a leash. Poor pooch! Oh, I do know one safe place where she can be leashless. Larz Anderson Park in Brookline, a beautifully mown hillside. And Elmbank in Natick. Well, at least there's two places.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Gilgamesh by Joan London has been my companion on the elliptical at the gym for the past two weeks or so. An award-winner and bestseller in Australia, it's an epic story of a young Australian woman and her son, the result of a night of merrymaking with an Armenian visitor.

Primarily set during the 1930s and 1940s, the novel follows Edith as she attempts to transform a barren future living in the bush on the southwest coast of Australia by journeying to Soviet Armenia to find Aram, her child's father. Though this is the adventure of her life, she takes no pleasure in the trip, and it is indeed unpleasant, coming as it does as World War II begins in Europe. Defying the odds, she receives the help of a fellow traveler (Armenian, of course) who wheels and deals and nearly gets himself killed spiriting her past the Soviet military police. Now indebted to this man who saved her life, she agrees to live in the apartment next to him and help care for his handicapped, shrewish wife.

Edith accepts this fate so passively, without protest, staying in Armenia (a setting beautifully rendered) for several years until it becomes too dangerous for her to remain. Here she lives the most aggravatingly passive life. She exerts no effort to find Aram, completely relying on others to do the searching for her. She remains in one city, confined largely to one apartment. Only upon leaving the country does she learn that Aram has been killed at the front. With the help of her cousin, she returns to her home in Australia, where she has no future. She lives the life of "getting by," and half-heartedly raises her wild, impulsive son, making no effort to improve her life or his, or to achieve some measure of happiness. Yes, it's depressing. She does leap out of her passivity for one grand, final act when she rescues her son from a juvenile detention home.

The language in Gilgamesh is beautiful, but the story left me dissatisfied. I thought the parallel to the epic poem Gilgamesh was weak, for those who are wondering what this story has to do with the Sumerian wanderer. On to greener pastures, I hope.

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier is waiting for me at the library, but because I haven't read the book I'm supposed to review by February 12th, Frederick Taylor's Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 (Harpercollins), it may be a while before I get to it.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

An interview with Paul Auster from 1996. Yeah, it's old, but it gives some insight into his genius.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Oracle Night by Paul Auster is sensational. I've finished it and have read the ending several times, going backwards and forwards. I cannot fathom why so many reviewers are disappointed in it and I don't agree at all with their criticisms. Stacey D'Erasmo, author of Tea, gave it a good review in the New York Times, though after reading it, I scratch my head and wonder if she read the same book I did.

The book opens as Sidney Orr, a novelist, is weak and debilitated after suffering from an undisclosed illness or injury that nearly killed him. One day he chances upon a blue notebook in a tiny, grimy stationery store in Brooklyn. The notebook draws him in, actually luring him, to begin a novel. In several days, he has written his protagonist into a trap he cannot escape from. As this dead end overtakes Orr's consciousness, his personal life becomes increasingly complex. When his wife's and his mentor's peculiar behavior upset his equilibrium, he begins another novel that fleshes out the long history that's at the root of what's going on in his own life. He uses the same approach he used with the previous book--he lets his mind go and records whatever his imagination unfolds. The truths revealed are so startling that he makes a crucial decision to stop the flow of events. I can say no more or I will ruin this book for you!

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Just coming up for air after a long day working. I can't find a single interesting piece of book news and time for blogging is running out.

I did find a nifty little link at Bookninja. Visit the Rejection Collection, where writers post their reject letters from editors. Is there really comfort in others' misery? I think so.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Yesterday I read the first two chapters of Carolyn Heilbrun's The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. Friends who know me will scoff when they read this. What on earth are you doing that for? Aren't we still middle-aged?

Over the past two or three years I have become acutely aware that there is a limited amount of "good" time left in life. With that as a given, I've found that I'm aware on a daily basis that I have to do everything possible to make the most of it--to spend my time making sure that I make headway achieving the things I most want in life and that I have enough time left over to enjoy the people, places, and activities that mean the most to me. So, with this mindset, I'm attracted to books, particularly memoirs, that grapple with the aging issue.

Heilbrun, who committed suicide last October at the age of 77, wrote this memoir when she was seventy. An early chapter describes her experience buying a house for herself when she was 68--a house for her solitude. As her husband pointed out to her while lounging at their place in New York City, "We already have a house." This, the "country house," is one they share with their children. Heilbrun wanted a place for her own, a place she could go to just be alone with herself. I was entranced with this idea and found her experiences buying a renovated old barn fascinating.

Yesterday I turned to these two books (see yesterday's entry) because I can't bear to finish Oracle Night (December '03) by Paul Auster. I have just twenty pages left to go and it will be over! I'm heartsick! The story begins with a blue notebook--not just any notebook--but a notebook of substance, a Portuguese notebook with heavy, grid-lined paper. Within its pages, a novelist recovering from a life-threatening illness, without prior thought or planning, pours out a story. More when I finish, if I can bear to read the last page.