Years ago, I met a woman who was slim, attractive, and swimming laps in a pool. Then I learned she was 91 years old. Ninety-one! She became my role model for someone who is 90 years old, and I used that image in developing the amateur detectives in my mystery series featuring the 90s Club at Whisperwood Retirement Village.
Then I submitted drafts of my chapters to critique groups. My 90-year-olds needed to be feeble, they said. Blind, deaf, using a cane or walker, wheelchair-bound, dribbling Pablum. That’s what 90-year-olds did. I disagreed and started collecting articles about people who were 90 and older running marathons, dancing, winning tennis matches, writing books, working, even learning to read for the first time.
A good novel delves deep into the psyches of its characters while also telling a story that’s intriguing enough to keep the reader turning pages. The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson succeeds on both fronts by weaving three different types of stories about the same people into a seamless whole.
The Bookshop of Yesterdays is an
adventure story developed through a clever scavenger hunt. For the first twelve
years of her life, Miranda Brooks spends happy hours following the clues to scavenger
hunts designed by her Uncle Billy. Then, after a hunt that leads Miranda to the
puppy she’s always wanted but her mother refuses to let her keep, Uncle Billy
disappears, and she doesn’t hear from him again until just before his death 16
My husband’s dream vacation is in Estonia. I kid you not. He loves Estonia for its visionary e-democracy, Why e-democracy would make Estonia a great place for a vacation eludes me, but I understand that for a political scientist like my husband, the country deserves respect.
Now, though, I may have to give Estonia some respect of my own. It turns out that Estonia tops the list of European countries that read the most.
World Book Day Statistics
I learned this intriguing fact about Estonia from new statistics released by Eurostat last spring for World Book Day. The chart above shows the fascinating numbers, gleaned from a survey conducted between 2008 and 2014 on people from aged 20-74 in 15 European Union countries.
Back in the day, most undergraduates took at least one English literature course. Sometimes it was Shakespeare, 19th century English novelists, or the American Transcendentalists. I took a modern novel course in which we read James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Remembrance of Things Past, and several others––a heavy load for a one semester course. The key lesson in all of these courses is that while it’s possible to read solely for enjoyment additional layers of understanding are available when you analyze and compare each work with others by the same author as well as books by other writers.
A few decades ago the Frederick Ungar Publishing Company launched a line of books about genre authors called Recognitions.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL! WE’LL SEE YOU HERE AGAIN IN EARLY JANUARY.
Now that the days are dwindling and the nights are long, it’s a good time to reflect on those who light candles for the rest of us. We were in St. Petersburg, Florida, walking in its historic neighborhood when we first came upon the Little Free Library in someone’s front yard. It was actually a small, colorfully painted wooden box with glass doors, and it rested on a pedestal about four feet high. Inside were a selection of books with a sign saying, “Take a book. Leave a book ” We’d never seen such a thing before. Since then, I’ve come across these boxes elsewhere, even in my own neighborhood in Columbia, MD. There are over 75,000 Little Free Libraries across the globe.
I can no longer deny that the holiday season has pounced down upon us, and we are once again compelled to give gifts to everyone we know. If I have to give presents to all those rascals, then, dadgummit, I’ll make them, or try to make them, read. So, I asked some of my literary friends to offer titles of books that they would recommend as holiday gifts. Most of them protested that my request is unfair, because a book gift is a personal affair: Doesn’t it demand intimate knowledge of the particular gift receiver’s literary taste? Should we mention classics or recent titles? Can I suggest my own books or ones by my associates? Can I really give books to total strangers?
I opened the I Ching at random this morning and came up with #38, K’uei / Opposition. The commentary says it is common for two opposites to exist together, needing to find relationship. I realize an opposition is being set up just in the act of writing my memoir Drop Out: my inner writer will be observing everything I do closely and recording what she finds valuable. I’m reminded of a review of Journey into the Dark: The Tunnelby William Gass that appeared in The New York Times Book Review:
Writers double themselves all the time in their fictions, of course. That’s one of the reasons for writing them: to clone yourself and set yourself out on a different path, or to reconfigure yourself as a marginal observer of your own childhood, as Lawrence does with Rupert Birkin in Women in Love, and as Woolf does with Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse; or to split yourself in two and reimagine one side of yourself through the eyes of the other, as Joyce does in Ulysses, and as Nabokov does in Pale Fire.
I once wrote a novel inspired by coincidences. It was great fun–though hardly original. Metafiction, fantasy, fairy tales, and any number of other genres often require coincidence. Some even delight in riffing on it.
Often, though, we have to limit coincidence in fiction, particularly realistic fiction. Inexplicable interconnections and concurrences may seem contrived. Genre novelists—and Charles Dickens, for that matter—are routinely pecked apart for stories that are too perfect too be true, filled with dei ex machina and separated-at-birth twins reuniting on the altar or mothers rediscovering offspring on the other side of the world.
Even so, fiction often aims to tell the story of real life. And, real life is filled with coincidence, or at least what seems to be coincidence to unbelievers.
I’ve written before (in Two Ways to Write a Novel, parts I and II, in this column) about a non-cinematic kind of novel, one which tells more than shows, that prioritises interiority and language over action and dialogue. Colm Toibin’s novel The Master (2004) about Henry James, strikes me as one that exemplifies that approach. In any case, how could you make James’s life dramatic? He had no openly sexual relationships. He lived through the Civil War, and two of his brothers fought in it, but he declined to do so. He travelled in Europe and knew many famous figures, but was apparently so discreet and reticent by nature that he seldom quarrelled or even disagreed with anyone. In fact, his life seems to have consisted mainly in observing the lives of others, and using those observations as grist for his fictional mill.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young slave, who escapes a Georgia plantation hoping to hop a ride to freedom on the Underground Railroad. What she discovers is that freedom’s journey has many obstacles. At the end of the story, after suffering psychological and physical harm along the way, we find her continuing her flight still hoping to reach freedom’s promised land.
This novel is an allegory of sorts. It begins offering a harsh portrait of life under slavery; but when Cora leaves the plantation, she moves into an imagined world, still harsh, meant it seems to teach the reader about the dangers of placing one’s hopes on whites.
Cora is transported north, as the title implies, on the Underground Railroad.
One of the great joys of participating in the D.C. area writing community is getting to know so many of the exceptionally talented authors who call the area home. An added bonus is learning some of the backstory behind their work, including what it took to bring to publication. Here are two books from D.C. writers that were just released in October.
This collection of flash fiction and longer stories, many of which are inter-related, is fully, deliciously unexpected. From the first tiny but densely meaningful story, “The Understanding”, and the second, “O, Tomato,” which reads like prose poetry, it doesn’t take long to catch the rhythm of the stories and a sense of direction, and to realize that what remains unstated carries as much weight as what is on the page.
If you lived in the D.C. Metro Area in October, 2002, you remember the terror you felt as the Beltway Snipers killed people randomly on the street, in a store, filling gas, loading groceries into a car—17 killed in all with 10 wounded. I was afraid, as we all were, to walk from my car to my house or anywhere else. If you were at the gas pump, you stooped to hide behind your car. You ran zigzaggedly into a store, kept your kids home from school, and prayed you wouldn’t be the next victim.
So this month I had the pleasure of being a panelist at the Mechanicsburg, PA, Mystery Book Shop. I sat next to David Reichenbaugh, also a panelist and author of In Pursuit: The Hunt for the Beltway Snipers.
The Rushes looks into the world of film making. Its two protagonists struggle to put career ahead of romance, but the penis has a way of rising. Best friends since childhood, they get college degrees in film making and begin Hollywood careers. Their long-range goal is to make their own films together, after they get the credentials necessary from working for others, the others tending toward the tyrannical. Everyone works long hours. Sex and romance get squeezed in.
As I read, I wondered how the author knew so much about the film industry. I learned he wrote and directed The Green Plaid Shirt, a 1996 romance/drama about life during the initial onslaught of AIDS.
Question: Carson’s big break into Hollywood comes when he’s hired by Zach, a producer who later berates him with a gay slur.
At a recent book club meeting, one of our members remarked that because the club had such mixed feelings about the novel Exit West, it likely wouldn’t become a classic. “A classic,” he said, “has to have good writing, characters we care about, a good story, and a deeper meaning.” Since we couldn’t agree about the characters or the writing, Exit West fell short.
A lot of scholars, writers, editors, and others in the literary world have defined “classic literature,” and doing a little research on the subject, I found that most of the definitions are similar to what my book club member suggested. Mark Twain had the most succinct definition—“a book which people praise and don’t read”—but assuming novels are read, I think the true standard for classic is that the novel has stood the test of time.
Imbolo Mbue’s novel Behold the Dreamers has been on my mind as I’ve read about the thousands of migrants from Central America walking the long miles toward the United States. The fictional story about Jenda Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon, could be the story of so many people who see America as the promised land. One of America’s central myths is that of the poor immigrant who amasses riches. Mbue’s take on it is powerful and original.
Mbue herself is the embodiment of the immigrant success story. In 1998, an aunt sponsored her to come from her native Cameroon to study at Rutgers University. She went on to get a master’s degree from Columbia University. Behold the Dreamers, her debut novel, landed a million-dollar advance.
For decades I’ve been preaching it to myself and others: writing routines don’t have to be long. Devote just an hour every day to writing, even if you cannot get beyond a few words, or you’re writing nonsense. If you can’t write a word, at least read or think about your writing.
Don’t underestimate the power of an hour.
Just do it. It works. I wish I practiced what I preached more regularly. But I fully believe it nonetheless.
One of my novels in progress is an attempt to cope with fear and chaos in our current political climate. Without revealing too much, it envisions a near future when a certain political figure and that person’s supporters have been effectively (but non-violently!) neutralized by virtue of magical spell. The stakes and conflict of the story derive from the threat that this enchantment will come undone.
It’s a kind of absurd story, by design. It may be a little silly, a little satirical, and a lot wish fulfillment. Sadly, I’ve been working on it for about a year, now, and am only half way through the first draft. I’m not a full-time writer, alas. When I am discouraged in my progress, or distracted by my day job, I have to find ways to motivate myself.
Confession: The last resolution I made that I stuck to was about seven or eight years ago, when I resolved to stop buying clothes that needed dry cleaning. I’ve been very happy with the way that turned out, as all the clothes in my closet are now hand or machine washable—which saves time, money, and is better for the environment. Usually though I don’t make New Year’s resolutions because I believe if you want to change something, change it now. Research shows the resolutions you make on New Year’s Eve usually don’t last.
Yet this year I’m ready to make a New Year’s resolution, even though I’m two months early. My first New Year’s resolution is to buy books only by small and university presses, and my second resolution to buy books through my local bookstore Starline Books or directly from the publisher.