Thursday, June 30, 2005

Just in Time for the Fourth of July Weekend
If you are a workaholic with latent loafer tendencies, you may want to examine a new book that will inspire you to goof off with a newfound dedication. I'm speaking of How to Be Idle by the British writer Tom Hodgkinson. He has managed to write 272 pages on the subject, and by dipping in and out of chapters boasting such titles as "8 a.m.: Waking Up is Hard to Do," "3 p.m.: The Nap," and "6 p.m.: First Drink of the Day," and "9 p.m.: The Idle Home," you will be well launched on a lazy weekend. I have a difficult time being lazy, but once I'm into it, I'm a champ.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Summer has come between me and this blog, not to mention between me and work. I was all settled Sunday morning for a long writing session after a four-mile walk when we got a call from our friends who have a summer place on a lake in southern Rhode Island. Needless to say, we dropped everything and had a delightful time paddling, swimming, and eating until six in the evening.

My young friend declared he's off to see War of the Worlds tomorrow. As long as most of the reviewers don't pan it, I hope I can convince Ken to go. In preparation, I dropped into Brookline Booksmith today to pick up a copy of the book. I was so happy that the Modern Library paperback is only $5.95. When was the last time you had a guiltless book purchase? Only 182 pages, too, so I should have no problem finishing it by next week. The only other book I've read by H.G. Wells is The Time Machine, which, by the way, is a fun movie to see again and again. Made in 1963, it stars Robert Taylor and Yvette Mimieux, among others. Ken and I saw it again about a year and a half ago, and I think I enjoyed it just as much.

Westwood Library emailed me to say that they have Leeway Cottage, Assassination Vacation, and Specimen Days waiting for me. Too many books!!! All are "high in demand" titles, unfortunately, so renewals are out of the question. How did I get so unlucky that all three came in at once? A reading Fourth of July holiday is fine with me, which may work out because Ken has alot of computers lined up for tune-ups this weekend. I'm sorry I'm not providing links to these yet, but I will when I get them into the house!

I discovered a little gem in the young adult section: When I Was a Soldier by Valerie Zenatti. This title has been translated from the French, and is a novel/memoir of Zenatti's experiences in the Israeli army as an eighteen-to-twenty-year old in the early 1970s. I seized upon it, because I remember as an eighteen-year-old during the Vietnam War being shocked/curious/horrified by the fact that Israeli girls not only went into the army, but were prepared to defend their country. In any case, Zenatti's account is exceptionally well-written, fast-paced, and short (if your time is tight these days), and I recommend it highly. I'm so glad that the Bookslut reviewed it, which serves to prove that YA novels are not just for kids!

Friday, June 24, 2005

I'm yearning for a good mystery or thriller with plenty of atmosphere, published within the past year. If you know of one, please leave a comment.

Suffering from hypographia, not that I have pencil to paper every minute. Or do I mean hypergraphia? Hmmmm... The condition I speak of is one in which I feel compelled to write every waking minute. When I am writing, I am crazy because it's not going well, and when I'm not writing, I'm angst-ridden because I wish I were writing. Sigh. This has been the case since Monday, and I'm really tired of it. Hypergraphia, if indeed that is the affliction, was discussed at length in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice Flaherty, a book I have blogged about before and recommend.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Life has been confusing of late, but not in a bad way, just lots of stuff going on around me. And what befuddles me further is that I have too many books lying around waiting to be read. I've had to weed out and set my priorities. My biggest problem is that I don't have a novel that I'm eager to dive into, and that's what I read at the gym and right before I fall asleep (and at other times).

I've been distracted by one of my birthday presents, an MP3 player--a Creative Zen Micro, which works like a charm, though its touch panel is a bit too sensitive. I've learned how to use it, but I don't have head phones that are stable enough for the gym. And I need an arm strap or something. That will come. My free one month with Napster has been terrific so far; they have improved their service tremendously over the past year, which is undoubtedly due to the competition with iTunes.

All right, already! Book News.
The library called the day before yesterday to say that Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was in. I delved into it in an odd fashion, reading a page here, two pages there. I would have started with page one and continued reading, but the style is adding to the confusion in my orbit this week. I will make one observation, and so far it's putting me off. The narrator is a nine-year-old boy who has witnessed the 9/11 disaster. Problem is, he has alot to say, but many times I come across modes of expression, and complex, analytical ideas that no nine-year-old would have. Now I realize Oskar is a very special child, but still, even a genius would not think like a twenty-five-year old man. But I have just committed the unforgivable sin of passing judgment before reading the book. Never, never, the little voice inside says.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Yes, it's been a good week, but I was hoping to do some writing late this afternoon after the midday food shopping and library visit. I'm worn out from the busy week or something--I am too exhausted to write a word of any project. So, I'm on the sofa with Sophie, looking out on the marsh (a gorgeous blue-green now), examining a library book that's hot off the press.

Cruel World: The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web by Lynn H. Nicholas deals with a topic that has always captured my attention: children and war. These days I'm most interested in the experiences of European children caught up in the chaos of the final months of the war and in the year following V-E Day. The last 150 pages of the book (579 pages total) focus on this time.

Lynn Nicholas talks about Cruel World on the Leonard Lopate Show--scroll down to find the segment and the "listen" button.

Nicholas is also the author of the award-winning The Rape of Europa, about the art confiscated by the Nazis and its repatriation.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

This has been a productive work week so far and I am happy. Blissful. Sophie is a new dog since the temperature dropped thirty five degrees.

I know I've blogged about Candadian short story artist Alice Munro a number of months ago. I've taken Runaway, her latest collection of stories, out of the library again. Last night I read "Passion" and at the end I was breathless. I reread the last four to five pages at least that many times, and suddenly, I got it. This story is the first I've read (since I've actually been making a study of short fiction) that has demonstrated the power inherent in the genre. Idea, character, plot--the words for these things sound so basic, so trivial, but Munro took her idea, the emotions of her characters, their histories, and wrung out every last drop of meaning. There are no empty metaphors, no dead ends, everything, every word relates to the conflict and the idea. Unbelievable!

Monday, June 13, 2005

The heat and humidity are unbearable today. I suppose if I had spent the day in the office, with the a.c. blasting on my back, my mind wouldn't be mush now. But I went to the gym this afternoon, where it was not and is never really cool, and my brain has been frizzled ever since.

But I'm not too fried to write about the book I'm reading. In her debut novel, Canadian writer Anne Giardini has created a world I'm enjoying visiting. I'd like to be more emphatic about my sojourn in the Vancouver of The Sad Truth about Happiness, but the protagonist, Maggie, a woman in her early thirties, is a calm, reflective person, unlike her more flamboyant sisters, and so far (I'm halfway through now) she is a distance from any excitement or suspense, even though she is dating three men.

But I like this book. I'm not going to say anything negative about it, even though her metaphors, which are beautiful (though overly endowed with adjectives at times), do not seem to connect to the story or to Maggie in any way.) Now, there, I've done what I said I wouldn't do. But I like the metaphors and the anecdotes; they're beautiful in a restful way, reminding me of a saunter in a perennial garden on a hot summer's day. I need this, because I've been reading some short stories that have had me pulling my hair out, the stories' endings are so maddening. The one I listened to while making dinner last night made me so furious that I wished I could throw the manuscript in the writer's face. I won't reveal the story today, mostly because I've been so unprofessional, but I may at some point when I regain my control.

It wasn't until I started pulling the links together for this entry that I discovered Giardini is the daughter of the late Carol Shields. There are few books that have spoken to me more than Shields's Unless. It would be a tough thing to attempt a novel and be the daughter of such an incredible writer.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

I slammed into a writing slump and have spent part of today clawing my way out. Writing in longhand does wonders at times like these, and I'm moving along again, although I am no way near ready to return to writing on the computer.

Late yesterday afternoon I listened to "Fireman," a short story by Rick Bass that was included in The Best American Short Stories of 2001, edited by Barbara Kingsolver. (I do hope she has a novel in the works.) I thought "Fireman" was an amazing piece of writing, but it read more like a memoir than fiction. By the way, in relation to my post earlier this week, it did not conform to the traditional "conflict, crisis, and resolution" arc, not at all.

In the volume's introduction, Kingsolver wondered why short stories are not all that popular among Americans. She mused that, given our frantic lives, a story of twenty pages or so is the perfect way for people to fit fiction into their lives. But...Americans want novels, and, as she points out, the number of pages is not an issue. 400 pages, 600 pages, length does not matter.

I prefer novels because I want to be immersed in a fictional world for a long time. I like to wrap it around me like a blanket and curl up in it.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Finally! Air conditioning in my office--I can breathe deeply again. I think the staff at our local Starbucks has been wondering if I'm homeless.

I have appreciated reading the comments to my last post and wish I could respond to each person personally, to thank them for weighing in, but since you did not leave a URL or way to contact you, I will just say thank you!

Last night in a pique of frustration, I heaved Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty into the "to be returned" pile. I'm halfway through, and the second hundred pages (there are nearly 400 in the book), do not appear to advance the plot, at least not to my befuddled mind. The middle is mired in the doldrums. The last three nights I have read it, I have found myself again and again reading the words while lost in thought about other things. I have tried to persist, but, Booker-Prize judges, the story is not going anywhere there in the middle!

Onward. I turned to Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind, a novel that imagines the emotional life of Sherlock Holmes in his nineties. A psychological probing of a fictional character that has been portrayed as emotionless intrigues me. Check out Mitch Cullin's Web site--I love it! Inventive, like his fiction.
(I'm sorry that the book link connects to a Washington Post review that you need to sign on for, but it was the only review I could find, and it's well worth reading. Why not sign up? Just give a fake name or something.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Who was the first person that said every story has to have a conflict, a climax, and a resolution, in just those words? Is the structure a helpful guide or a tyranny? Whenever I hear people insist on its necessity, as if they're pounding their fingers on bibles, I wonder if they're as absolute about every other aspect of their lives. Their laundry, for instance. Separating darks and whites. Washing clothes with cold water labels in cold water. Not using bleach if it says no bleach. You get the picture.

Decades ago, I enjoyed the first twenty or so pages of The Hobbit, when Bilbo Baggins was surrounded by the many comforts within his hobbit home. The description made me want to move in for a long stay. But Tolkien had other ideas. There must be a quest, a journey, a conflict, a climax! I'm sorry to say I disliked the book. I would have preferred to hang out with the hobbits.

Although the stories I write contain the required elements, oral narratives--the kinds of stories we spit out and chew over everyday in conversation-- often don't. So what's the big deal? (I'm leaving Virginia Woolf and James Joyce out of this conversation, by the way, though I wonder why writers don't try experimental fiction to a greater degree.) Your thoughts?

Saturday, June 04, 2005

I meant to post yesterday, but I was out celebrating my birthday. I'd rather not reveal my age today, but I will say that I'm old enough to realize that time is short and I must utilize and cherish every waking moment. And I have the best time doing just that.

My historian buddy Steve Fox , author of Transatlantic, and I browsed in the Wellesley Booksmith, and with the gift card Ken gave me, I bought a paperback copy of Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. I dipped into it last night and I was laughing hysterically within ten minutes. I just love the voice of the Ukrainian narrator, who appears to write English with the unguided use of a thesaurus.

One tidbit about Foer: In a recent New York Times article, I read that he has an office in a building a short distance from his home, but he doesn't use it for writing. Evidently he writes primarily in coffee shops and public libraries, with the hubbub of humanity swirling around him. So why the office? He says he needed a place where he doesn't write! Interesting...

Speaking of which: Going wireless has been such a boon for my writing. I'm definitely able to write and do related reading and notetaking more hours per day by shifting my work locations. I love being able to work throughout the house, and like Foer, I'm able to muster an uncanny force of concentration in coffee shops, which are my favorite work venue.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Rejection. Every writer experiences it regularly, but some cases of rejection are more painful than others. I applied for a residency that was perfectly designed for the novel I'm writing now. Much of the research I need to complete is in the institution that offers the residency. Let me tell you: I slaved over that application, slaved. I have never tried so hard to write anything as that huge application. But I found out yesterday that I didn't make it. And I really, really wanted it. I felt devastated for an hour, then depressed for all of last evening. This morning I did not even try to approach the manuscript, because I knew I needed to take care of the worst of the wound first. Plenty of time for writing tomorrow. I coped today by making "nests of productivity" in all the corners of the house where I work.

Somehow in my meanderings online this morning, I learned of a new book. Perhaps it's not new, just new in paper. It's exactly the solace and inspiration I need at this time. The Resilient Writer, edited by Catherine Wald. The cover says it's essays of rejection and triumph by 23 top writers, but the articles are really stories of tenacity. How does one persevere? I highly recommend it. Chris Bohjalian, Amy Tan, Wally Lamb--they're just a few of the writers included.

By the way, Catherine Wald is creator of the rejection collection Web site, well-worth a visit if you're in the mood.