Wednesday, April 28, 2004

I'm always excited when the short-list winners of the Orange Prize are announced, partly because there are always one or two women whose work I'm not familiar with at all. This year I'm investigating the history and novels of South African-born novelist Gillian Slovo. Her tenth novel, Ice Road, made the short list and I'm dying to read it, although it has not been published yet in the U.S. Little, Brown is the publisher, so I think it's likely it will be in bookstores here before too much time has passed.

Slovo was born in 1952, the daughter of anti-apartheid Communists. According to the Orange Prize website (link in preceding paragraph), her family was exiled to England in 1964. I wish I knew more about the circumstances, so I'll have to find Slovo's memoir about her childhood, Every Secret Thing, My Family, My Country.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Leslie Epstein's San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory has been my gym read of late. I first learned of it in December when it was included on a number of "Best Books of 2003" lists. I've never read anything by Epstein before, and I was surprised to discover that he's been director of the creative writing program at Boston University for 25 years. The novel's affecting, and is told from the point of view of the teenaged Richard Jacobi whose screenwriter father tragically dies after being brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the early 1950s.

The "Novel from Memory" part of the title has been intriguing me since I read the first chapter. How much of the novel is autobiographical? How much fiction? An interview with Epstein recorded in BU's student newspaper offers some tantalizing clues. (Sorry, pages 2 and 3 of the interview require a free registration.) For those who want an easier link, the Albany Times Union also spoke with Epstein about the parallels between his life and San Remo Drive.

According to Epstein, his father Philip and his brother wrote the screenplay of Casablanca. Philip, like Richard Jacobi's father, was killed in a car crash a year after testifying before the House Committee. The novel throbs with raw emotion and is well controlled, despite that fact. I must reserve final comments until I have finished reading, but I am looking forward to the second half of the book when Richard is a much older man.

Friday, April 23, 2004

A nice house, but no, it's not mine.

Our house on the edge of Redwing Marsh is a quiet place where the writer can think deep thoughts and write quickly and effectively without distraction. Usually. The noises of the past few days have made me want to barricade myself in a lead-walled room. Yesterday a not-too-distant neighbor hired a tree-hacking firm to fell a forest of the stately white pine trees on his property. This man lives in the woods, mind you, and he made the decision to chop them all down. What would possess a person to do this? I know what his neighbors tell me--he wanted to make his children a yard to play in. So what's wrong with playing in the woods? And what's wrong with the playground that's practically next door to his house?

Thank you so much, dear readers, for allowing me to rant about this sad, disturbing event. Sadder still because hawks have been nesting in those very pines for the past six years.

Yesterday a helicopter decided to buzz the marsh, zooming and roaring back and forth so low that it looked as if it might land. (It wouldn't be the first time a chopper was idiotic enough to try to touch down on our piece of sog.) After five minutes of this, I was dialing the police when it tore off toward the golf course.

I would tell you about the legion of town trucks out in front of my house this morning, trying for the third time to fill the street where it keeps caving in, but I realize that most of you don't visit this blog for tales of a writer's distractions.

So in book news--I think I'll blog a sec about NPR's Fresh Air. It's a shame the show is on at 3pm. I'm just too busy then, and usually not in a place where I can easily tape the program. The few times I have been able to listen, I've enjoyed the author segments immensely--Gross's interviewing is terrific. If you missed Fresh Air this week, go to its website and listen to a show--they're all archived. On Wednesday, Bob Woodward spoke about his new book and linguist Geoff Nunberg commented on the blogging phenomenon. And, oh boy, oh boy--Barry Manilow is on today... Sorry, Barry, but I'd rather hear nails on a chalkboard.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Have you visited the British Library's website yet to take a peak at the Lindisfarne Gospels and Leonardo DaVinci's notebook? It's necessary to download Macromedia Shockwave if you don't already have it, but it's worth it. This project, which includes ten of the British Library's rarest and most beautiful manuscripts, has been in the works for years. More and more libraries have followed suit, digitizing the gems in their collections.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

I suppose by now everyone has heard about Flavia Bujor, the teenaged author of the fantasy The Prophecy of the Stones, a book the fifteen-year-old Parisian finished by the time she was thirteen. It's been translated into 23 languages and appeared on American bookshelves earlier this month. Elizabeth Hand recently gave it a scathing review in The Washington Post. Hand lambasts those responsible for publishing the book, calling the move "a crass, cynical attempt to cash in on a writer's youth." Miramax (Hyperion) was probably hoping to grab the same readers that were drawn to fifteen-year-old Christopher Paolini's Eragon.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Due to an unexpected email I had to respond to, I only have time to provide a link to a fascinating article by Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. He discusses the challenges of writing children's books and analyzes the differences between literary and genre fiction.

More tomorrow morning without fail!

Sunday, April 18, 2004

How could I have missed BloggerCon? I can't, I just can't believe I missed it. And it's all because I've been working from morning 'til night and haven't had a minute to keep up with all the blogs I enjoy. One thing is sure, I won't miss the next one.

I had the best time late yesterday afternoon, grabbing the time to hang out with some of my new book finds. "The Girl With the Blackened Eye," (it's actually online!) an O. Henry-Award-winner by Joyce Carol Oates in her new collection, I Am No One You Know, packs an emotional wallop. (Sorry, but I can't think of any way to describe it that isn't a metaphor for the title). Selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2001, it's about a grown woman who, for the first time, tells the story of her abduction by a serial murderer when she was fifteen.

And into last evening, I started reading The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization by Brian Fagan. The first chapter describes climatic shifts during the fourth and last major stage of the Ice Age and how it affected human populations, particularly Cro-Magnon Man and Neanderthal Man in Europe. Absolutely rivetting. I love the blend of science, history, archeology, and technology. Fagan's writing unravels the complexities beautifully. A wonderful evening it was!

Now, for the week ahead, if I can just figure out Word 2002's Styles and Formatting features for an assignment due on Tuesday. I actually had to go out and spend money on a Word 2002 manual to demystify it for me because I find the Word packaged help so difficult to pull apart. I mean, you can't look at two pages at the same time with this online stuff! So annoying. Yes, I'm perpetually technologically challenged.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Picture Bill Clinton feverishing laboring on his memoir in a renovated barn "near his home" in Chappaqua, New York. He's supposed to have it done by June 15, but he's missed his previous deadlines, so who knows? If he procrastinates a bit more, publication will be delayed and the splash won't dampen John Kerry's campaign. Why isn't he writing at home? Too many phones ringing?

About The Lucky Ones(see Wednesday's post)--If you are a parent with young children, please take caution with this book. Within its five stories, Cusk has amassed a grim collection of parenting nightmares, dozens of lonely, miserable, pull-your-hair-out moments. Every parent will recognize themselves in Cusk's characters and will sympathize with their situations, but the stories are unrelentingly dark. Cusk is a skilled storyteller, no doubt about that, but I can't wait to get away from the dirge of parenting (and marital) doom.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

I'm glad I was asked to do a review of The Lucky Ones by the British novelist Rachel Cusk because I'm completely unfamiliar with her writing. She won the Whitbread First Novel Award for Saving Agnes and was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists of the Decade.

It's amazing that there are people who claim to love or like the month of April. "What do you like about it?" I ask, truly mystified. "The nice weather," someone invariably says. "It's warm," pipes up another.

Do these people walk around the Boston area with blinders on or what? When have we had nice, warm weather in April? Oh yeah, I remember. Last year on April 23rd, it was sunny and the temperature got up to 62 degrees. I guess I forgot.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Bits and pieces:
This has proved to be a writing weekend. I've tried to catch up on my personal journal and realized that much of what moved me about our trip to New York City has not been recorded. So I spent some time waxing nostalgic on the glory of New York dogs and other joys of the city, especially the Upper West Side. I've tackled some work, mostly query writing, and, I took a novel I'm playing with out of the drawer. Inspired by the technique of the narrator in Oracle Night by Paul Auster, I bought a notebook--in this case, a plain black notebook--and started to write. No planning. No outlines. No microanalyses. Just write and see what unfolds. After weeks of this experimentation, I can say that I don't recommend this method if you're serious about finding an efficient way of writing a publishable novel. Since I'm not doing that, I've enjoyed the experience and have been surprised at the ways ideas, characters, and themes emerge spontaneously.

The Boston Review has announced the winner of its 11th Annual Short Story Contest. 700 entries, all judged by Ha Jin, who had to pick one winner. Come on, did he really read all 700? They must've had a committee to do some weeding first. Anyway, the winner, "If It's Anywhere, It's Behind Us," is available online.

According to CNN, Hillary Clinton is not sure why her memoir Living History sold as well as it did. Perhaps she's surprised it did so well because it is such an vacuous memoir. I ordered it from the library and read as much as I could stand when it first came out. Once I discovered that there is nothing genuine in it, I returned it so it wouldn't clutter up the house. It's nothing more than a glorified campaign brochure, a gussied-up PR piece. Someday I hope she takes the time to reflect and speak the truth. I don't mean about "what happened." Not necessarily, not at all. Someday I hope she fesses up and talks about what's really in her heart--about her life, her choices, her regrets, the people she's known, all of it. Is she capable of doing that, do you think? Not everyone is, I know. But it would be interesting if she did.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

I really have to speed up my reading because I have many books on tap that I've been dying to get into. I've dipped into A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Canadian Gil Courtemanche, a novel about middle-class blacks and foreign whites in Rwanda at the time of the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus. A swimming pool at a so-called luxury hotel provides the setting or backdrop for the novel. I've noticed recently that many books and articles are being published about the 1994 Rwandan civil war, a time when few in the West batted an eye at the mass slaughter of the Tutsis.

I've had John Updike's Early Stories out of the library for a while now and, because of my perpetual freelance job seeking, I can't seem to grab the time to read more than a story here, a story there. In the evenings, I finish the dinner chores and walk Sophie and collapse on the couch in not the highest of spirits. Actually, though, after a stressed-out day applying for jobs and sending out queries that are answered only once in a blue moon, a book is a huge solace. A peace envelops me as I turn the pages. If only the tv set weren't blaring. I find "24" to be the most annoying show to try to read by.

Last night we watched "The Hours." I'm finding the performances absorbing although when I tried to read the book, I was able to tolerate only a chapter. I almost feel like apologizing, because the writing itself is accomplished, but I found it overwhelmingly pretentious. My book group read both Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours one month, and I found the combination to be too much. A bit like eating two pounds of molasses candy. All at once.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

For the past couple of evenings I've been reading The Bookseller of Kabul by the Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad. I will withhold my judgments until I have completed it, though it has been captivating and has provided a thorough release from the worries of the day. Yet there is nothing really new in it. Seierstad's view of Afghan women's lives is typically western. She's keen on emphasizing the narrowness and limitations of women's lives, but so far has failed to tap what beats in the hearts of these women. She observes the marriage rituals, the preoccupation with tradition, but misses the core of what all this means to the women she's writing about. I'm wondering about the nature of the close emotional ties that bind Afghan women together as they bump into each other in their tiny homes. I'll give an update soon.

Monday, April 05, 2004

This morning I want to share a discovery I made on Saturday. After receiving an e-mail from PEN New England (if you're a writer in the Boston area, do yourself a favor and join!) informing me that short-story writer Karl Iagnemma is doing a reading at the Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge on Wednesday, April 7 at 6:30 pm, I became curious. A little googling uncovered a remarkable talent. Iagnemma, a robotics engineer at MIT, published a short story collection last year entitled On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction (Dial Press).

The stories, written while he was studying for his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, have been awarded the Paris Review Discovery Prize and a Pushcart Prize. One story (sorry, I don't know which one yet) was selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. He has received a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and best of all, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fiction Grant. Whew! Well, after reading all this early Saturday morning, I was desperate to read his work. I got a hold of a copy of On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction and curled up on the couch with Sophie.

It didn't matter to me anymore that the weather was wet and cold. After a few pages, I knew I had a startlingly original new voice in my hands. Nothing can beat the excitement of that. I am convinced that Iagnemma's mooring in mathematics and physics is at the root of his unique vision, reminding me in a way of how biology and medicine informs John Murray's short stories. See my archives, the October 7, 2003 entry for information about Murray and hisA Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies.

Fascinating interview with Iagnemma on

Friday, April 02, 2004

The lowdown on the Ian McEwan dilemma: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Ian McEwan's visa snafu came about because he is scheduled to make a number of speaking engagements and will be earning in excess of $1000, the ceiling permissible on a tourist visa. If one earns more than a thousand, a work visa is required. McEwan, of course, had only a tourist visa. McEwan's comment, "Homeland Security is making America safe from British novelists." Enough said. It does seem that Homeland Security and other officials who deal with these matters are making an example of him. But one has to ask, for whom is the example being made?

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Incredible! It's Thursday already and I have had not a second to blog--I mean it and I can't stand it.

In the news today, evidently Ian McEwan was denied entrance to the U.S. because he didn't have a visa. All the British novelist was trying to do was go to Seattle to give a lecture. He shouldn't need a visa for that, should he? Anyway, the U.S. consul general got him the visa and all is now well. So that's not much of a story, I suppose.

Last March (a year ago) I had the flu (Influenza Type B, actually) and was sick enough so that I was able to experience the bliss of reading in bed for several days. Fortunately I had McEwan's Atonement and T.C. Boyle's Drop City on hand. I was mesmerized by Atonement. The "inciting incident" and its rippling after-effects, all transpiring after Briony intercepts the lover's message intended for her sister, is brilliantly executed, particularly in the way it forces each major character to make a decision that has enormous negative implications for the future. Each character is the agent of his own misfortune, but young Briony's willful misunderstanding is what seals the fate of all involved. A masterwork.

I picked up Before the Flood by Ian Wilson at the library again because I need it for a small project. Wilson, another British writer, wrote this well-researched book about the ancient, civilized people who lived on the shores of the Black Sea from 8,000-5,000 B.C. Not only does the evidence show that this civilization predates the once-supposed first civilization of Sumer in Mesopotamia by thousands of years, but evidently Robert Ballard's underwater expeditions indicate that there was also a catastrophic flood that dramatically changed the land and the coastline of the Black Sea. It seems that the civilization in question did not disappear with the flood; it appears that the society abandoned the towns and villages they built around 5,000 B.C., before the flood took place. The flood simply buried all traces of their society. Fascinating story, and again, the writer, though not a historian, did his homework.