Some people seek comfort food, but I tend toward comfort books. Comfort books are the ones I return to when the problems of the day become too much. They’re my macaroni and cheese without the calories.
A few weeks ago, as Americans seemed at war with Americans, I turned to one of my comfort books, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains by Owen Wister. This 1902 novel was required reading when I was in junior high school. I loved it then and loved it again when I reread it in 1980, 1991, and late this summer. The book belongs near the top of any list of great American novels.
I feel almost apologetic for enjoying the book. There’s much in it to make 21st-century Americans shudder, including racial epithets, vigilante justice, and sexism. But with its depiction of a noble (if flawed) American hero, its virtuous (if flawed) schoolteacher, and the unspoiled American West, the reader sees a grand country, where possibilities seem endless, and a good man can prosper. The Virginian is just the man to succeed.
Narrated by an Eastern tenderfoot whom the Virginian is taking to visit Judge Henry in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, we see the wild country from the eyes of an outsider, just like us. The contrasts between the natural West and the constrained East come quickly. The West proves the winner, but both Westerners (particularly in the person of the native Virginian) and Easterners (the narrator and the schoolteacher and her family) learn and grow.
A Writer Reads Elizabeth Strout
Writing fiction will change the way you read it. I often make a point of reading like a writer (to borrow Francine Prose’s book title), examining what the author is trying to do and how she’s doing it, determining what works and what doesn’t (and why), and looking for how this can help improve my own writing. It doesn’t stop me from reading as a reader—enjoying good literature and losing myself in fictional worlds—but I rarely lose sight of what the author is doing to and for me.
And when I read really good fiction—the kind that strikes a chord deep within—the writer in me usually has two reactions. First, I’m inspired and I want to rush to the computer to try to create a similar gift for my readers. But often the inspiration gets deflated by a feeling that I’m not a real writer, not the kind of author who wields magic—who not only understands people and the world they live in, but also has the tools to effectively convey that.
Such was my reaction to Elizabeth Strout’s new collection of stories, Anything Is Possible.
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HarperCollins, 2016)
Book buyers have made J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy the nation’s number one non-fiction bestseller in part in search of answers to Donald Trump’s upset victory in the November 2016 election. My guess is that many will draw the wrong conclusions. Some will call for increased federal spending on social programs, while others will see Vance’s story as supporting an emphasis on individual responsibility. Vance would reject both.
Though she loves to read novels, author Desiree Cooper found that her fiction comes from her in a much shorter form. “If there was no such thing as flash fiction, I would have had to invent it,” says the 2016 debut author of the collection of flash fiction titled Know the Mother. If you’re not terribly familiar with flash fiction, which works to tell an evocative story in a very compressed space, this lovely, haunting collection demonstrates just how effective and affecting this genre can be.
Mother’s stories have a strong common thread of dreams delayed or abandoned — suppressed under the weight of obligation — and of how identity is tied to those dreams. Who are we, really, if we’re never allowed to be who we want to be? Can anyone really know us if our true selves are hidden behind society’s expectations of us or the demands of roles we did not freely choose?
Most novels that include an assault in the plot feature that assault as the main event. One of the beauties of M.O. Walsh’s debut novel My Sunshine Away is that the rape described on page one is not the main event, no matter how much the young narrator wants to think it is.
At age 14, the narrator, who remains nameless throughout the story, is infatuated with his 15-year-old neighbor Lindy. So, when she is attacked coming home from track practice one summer night in 1989, he thinks the world as he knows it is destroyed. Through his remaining adolescence, he sees life through the prism of the rape and how it affects Lindy’s relationship with him, while all around him so much else is happening that belies the idyllic quality of his southern neighborhood and that will shape him into the adult he becomes.
A Morsel for the Armchair Traveler
Planes are crowded, hotels are booked, and families are streaming to their vacation destinations. Those of us staying put in these sultry summer days can do worse than read the adventures of people lucky enough to travel abroad.
Victoria Twead’s hilarious memoir, Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools, more than fits the requirement of an armchair getaway. Twead takes readers from her Sussex home, on England’s southern coast, to a tiny mountain village in Andalucia, on Spain’s southern coast.
Last month I published a poll asking for tips about summer and travel reading (READING ON THE ROAD). I had an ulterior motive. I was hoping someone could save me from lifelong habit of lugging books around the world that I ended up neglecting or destroying, sometimes both.
Reviewing Stuart Rojstaczer, The Mathematician’s Shiva, Penguin, 2014
The Mathematician’s Shiva is a feel good novel that doesn’t require the reader to be Jewish or a mathematician to enjoy. In fact, learning a little about both is a side benefit to this very readable journey.
The death of a parent can be a traumatic time for any person no matter his or her age, but when the parent is a world-renown mathematician and the son is, in terms of his career a lesser light, on top of which he has to entertain a sometimes rude band of academic geniuses and near geniuses for a week in his mother’s home, well then we have the basis for a potentially very interesting story.
I’m not a horse fancier but after reading Alyson Hagy’s Boleto I look curiously when I glimpse a horse. The novel’s young cowboy protagonist drew me to it (I am a fancier of young cowboys). The filly he’s training for polo is the reader’s window into Will Testerman’s soul. I fell in love with the book and its Everyman protagonist, and I’m delighted Alyson Hagy let me ask a few questions about it.
Reading The Ludwig Conspiracy, an historical novel by Oliver Pötzsch, opens up dark passageways into the side notes of history. The book itself is a fast-paced thriller with unexpected and persistent villains, both past and present. Published in 2011, eight years after Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Pötzsch’s book also draws on secret codes and byzantine intrigues and superficially seems to ride Dan Brown’s wave.
You know King Ludwig II of Bavaria as “Mad King Ludwig,” who commissioned the building of Schloss Neuschwanstein, famous as the Disney World castle. He also built Schloss Linderhog and an imitation Versailles known as Herrenschiemsee. Ludwig was born in 1845 and crowned king in 1864. He was a Roman Catholic who struggled with his homosexuality and he was a patron of the composer Richard Wagner. In June 1886, his body and that of his psychiatrist were found drowned in a Bavarian lake.
Summer is the time for road trips, and one of the best traveling companions is a phone or iPad full of audiobooks. If I’m driving alone, I get antsy if I have to go very far without one of these lively passengers. They’re also great for sharing if you have one that everybody in the car likes. I find the best books for travel are lighter fare because it’s hard to keep up with complex plots when traffic takes your attention.
One of my favorite series of books for listening in the car is the Miss Julia series by Ann B. Ross. Miss Julia is a clever, opinionated, and lovable woman of a certain age who has a knack for getting involved in thorny circumstances, sometimes by her own actions, but usually not. She’s weathered many a surprise in her later years, not the least of which is the arrival on her doorstep of a young woman claiming to be the mother of Miss Julia’s late husband’s son. How Miss Julia handles this development is both funny and touching.
This is a strange time for journalism—confusing both for the people who practice it and those who consume it. The Trump administration has cast a lifeline to mainstream media like The New York Times and The Washington Post, which have seen circulation surge as old-time investigative reporting kicks into high gear. At the same time, rumors, lies, and complete fabrications get almost equal treatment in certain less reputable media sources, with a huge impact in unfortunate ways. For journalists of the old school (including me) it’s a time of head scratching.
Commonwealth: A Review for Writers as well as Readers
My apology to non-writers. This review of Ann Patchett’s 2016 novel, Commonwealth, focuses primarily on the writing, but in doing so perhaps readers will come to understand some basic writing techniques and how they influence story.
Unlike many contemporary novels, Commonwealth is written from an omniscient viewpoint. That means from the very first sentence there’s an always present story narrator telling us what people are doing and thinking. “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with a bottle of gin.” That’s the narrator talking, not one of the characters.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
—Jorge Luis Borges
I had the distinct pleasure recently of being on a panel at the Washington Writers Conference with Tom Shroder—author, ghostwriter, journalist, and long-time editor of the Washington Post Magazine—and Michael Dirda, even longer-time book critic at the Washington Post and elsewhere. We were discussing the fuzzy lines that separate memoir, family history, and fiction.
Derek Walcott, 1930-2017
I used to read a lot of poetry. That thought hit me on March 17, when I learned of the death of the Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott on the island of St. Lucia, where he was born.
It has been years since I’ve read Walcott, but his work was once a constant companion of mine. As I think now about the pleasures of meter, rhyme, and the soaring imagination that good poetry generates, I realize what I’ve missed.
When I heard of Derek Walcott’s death, I recalled a day in 1980 when I opened The New Yorker and excitedly read the title “Jean Rhys” above a six-stanza poem. Only a short time before had I become acquainted with the Dominica-born author Jean Rhys, but I’d been devouring her novels Wide Sargasso Sea, Good Morning, Midnight, and Voyage in the Dark and recommending them to every book lover I knew. And here was an homage to her in a poem by Walcott. I calmed myself and read:
Paula Fox died on March first, although I didn’t know it. I happened to be reading Desperate Characters at the time. I didn’t know who the author was or why I was reading Desperate Characters. My best guess was that a Goodreads friend had recommended the book and I’d downloaded it, with so many others, to my Kindle. Because Kindle doesn’t give copyright or original publication dates for books – an unforgivable sin, to my mind – I didn’t even know whether Desperate Characters was an older book or a recent one set in the sixties. What I did know, or realized as I got into the book, was the fact that I was reading not just good but great fiction. He wasn’t a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.
At first read, you might think Fling! by Lily Iona MacKenzie is a delightful story with endearing, charming characters—which it is. But look a little closer, and you’ll find it’s also a probing story picking at deep layers of family love and resentment. Just below the characters’ zest for life lie feelings of aloneness and abandonment. Once those feelings are laid bare, can they ever be subdued?
Fling!’s main characters are mother and daughter Bubbles and Feather. Ninety-year-old Bubbles is still full of enthusiasm and looking for laughter wherever she can find it. MacKenzie tells us Bubbles’ motto is fun. “Life was too short; you needed to have a little fun. … Money didn’t matter that much to her, as long as she could have a good time.”
A Review of Hillbilly Elegy
In my last posting, I discussed three books of non-fiction that touched on topics of empathy, compassion, and a shared social contract, and that together, I felt, made some illustrative commentary on the events of that day, January 20th, 2017. One book that I had hoped to include—but which landed on my reading stack a bit too late to make the cut—was another unexpectedly successful work of non-fiction. It, too, highlights some of the themes of my earlier discussion.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a memoir by a young Yale-educated lawyer named J.D. Vance. He beats his readers to the punch in offering his own wry objection to a 31-year-old’s writing a memoir, but he has much to offer us as he relates his own experience in what is arguably the most forgotten and dismissed segment of the American population.
Elegy has variously been described as the book that explains to liberals the inexplicably successful candidacy and then election of our 45th president; a shameful sellout that feeds into the conservative myth that the poor are poor by choice; and a fresh and welcome new voice in support of right-leaning philosophies. The literary equivalent of a chameleon, Elegy is being used as a sort of shorthand by commentators of every stripe to support whichever underlying philosophy is being argued or promulgated.
That’s a lot of baggage for one slender volume to drag along with it. My recommendation is to jettison all that and read the book entirely for itself, because it is worthy and thought-provoking on its own. More than that, it is a wonderfully engaging story of a family we come to care about and wish the best.
Ever since The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd was released in 2014, I’ve heard it described as the story of the relationship between a white girl and the enslaved black girl who is given to her as her personal maid on her eleventh birthday. The novel is that story, but its deeper story is the evolution of the white girl, Sarah Grimké, into not only a leader of the abolitionist movement but also one of the first proponents of women’s rights.
Sarah Grimké was a real person who was born into Charleston aristocracy and grew up there in the years before the U.S. Civil War. Kidd used diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, and Sarah’s own writing as well as biographical material to learn the facts of Sarah’s life and many of her desires, struggles, and motivations. But the beauty of this novel comes from the rich inner life that Kidd imagines for Sarah, even as a child.
Last year when the Nobel Prize in Literature went to Bob Dylan, many people responded with the question, Why? Two years earlier when the Nobel Prize committee named Patrick Modiano the recipient of its literature prize, another question was often asked, Who?
Though Modiano had published about thirty works in his native France, he was almost unknown in this country. Only a dozen of his novels had been translated into English, and the publishing house David R. Godine, which had published three of them, sold only about 8,000 copies.
Why do I call Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven a utopian dystopia? Her story echoes the tradition of dystopian novels from 1984 and Brave New World to more recent books like McCarthy’s The Road and Veronica Roth’s Divergent by positing a pandemic that wipes out the vast majority of the earth’s population in a matter of days, but the ending, which I will get to, is more optimistic than most.
I often read two or three novels at once. Reading Percy’s The Moviegoer and Albo’s Hornito, I read a passage and thought I’d picked up one book rather than the other. Both present a young man chasing sex and the meaning of life while also interacting with his elders and friends and working in an office and revisiting his childhood. When I finished both books, I noticed that many passages I’d marked in each could fit either, to some extent. Which left me struck by the similarity of the quest of the protagonists, although really quite different men.
Most fiction fans know about Maxwell Perkins’s role in paring down Thomas Wolfe’s sprawling narratives to shape them into manageable novels. Fewer people are familiar with the massive influence Perkins had on other iconic American fiction writers and on the literary standards of the early 20th century. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the National Book Award winner by A. Scott Berg, tells Max’s story with all the color and style worthy of its subject. Filled with details and personalities, the biography reads like a novel, following the brave exploits of its central character.
Words matter. It would be surprising if I as a writer didn’t believe that to be true, since words are my entire stock in trade. Words have meaning. A shared understanding of the meaning of words is what allows us to communicate and function as a society. Words have shades of meaning, too—nuance—and understanding that nuance allows us all to send and receive exactly the message that’s intended.
There are roughly 130,000 words in the English language. It’s said that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words, which was not out of the ordinary for an educated man of his time. In comparison, modern Americans have a working vocabulary of about 3,000 words. As we continue to pare back our words, nuance is lost. Shades of meaning are jettisoned, the subtle distinctions sacrificed, pounded out into the blunt instrument of whatever fits into 140 characters.
Words affect us. We may teach our children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” as a lesson in resilience and the mature ability to walk away and elect not to engage, but we also know the power of words to hurt, as well as to heal. Certainly, we expect the leaders of our country, our shared community, to understand that fundamental truth and act accordingly.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the last year, and wildly more so since early November. Because I knew that I would be posting this essay today, I selected a few books to read that seemed to cut to the heart of the things that keep me awake at night.
I have a friend who retains nothing from the way history is usually taught in classes, so she reads historical novels about the periods she wants to learn about. The novels make the history come alive for her so she can remember it.
I understand this. Many years ago, in planning a trip to Haiti. I tried reading nonfiction about Haitian history, but I simply couldn’t retain the salient facts. Then I read a lurid novel called The Black Sun by Lance Horner and Kyle Onstott. In the novel, a young American from Boston travels to Haiti as the bloody revolution begins in 1791. The revolution ended in 1804 with the triumph of the black slaves. The major figures of that revolution, especially Henri Christophe, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, are vividly described in the book. Dessalines became the first leader of Haiti after the revolution. The novel described him as a brutal revengeful man and that was the way he ruled. This was confirmed in reading nonfiction about Haiti’s history, where it seemed every succeeding president was more brutal than the last.
We also read The Comedians by Graham Greene, a novel set in Haiti during the regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a brutal dictator of Haiti from 1957 to 1971. The novel was later made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Duvalier’s vicious security police were known as the “Tonton Macoute.”