I just finished reading Sarah Ruden’s acclaimed translation of The Golden Ass, a 2nd century AD, a classic and wonderfully ridiculous work that has been called the world’s first novel. And then it dawned on me: just recently I had read (and blogged about) a couple of other first novels of sorts, The Tale of Genji and Don Quixote. I started wondering: just how many novels have claimed this title?
The cliché advice to writers is, “write what you know,” and if Elliot Perlman’s collection of short stories is based on what he knows and has personally experienced, then I feel very, very sorry for him.
The characters in these nine stories deal mainly with rejection in one form or another, and the reader watches as they spiral down a path of depression. This is not a book filled with cheerful stories and happy outcomes, but nevertheless, it is still a worthy read.
Reading Bret Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This brought me back to 2003, when kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart was released after eight months in captivity. I was teaching a course in journalism ethics and I asked my students to assess the media coverage, which included 24/7 speculation about why Smart hadn’t escaped earlier and what horrors she’d been subjected to. That led to a vigorous debate over the conflict between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know. I argued that in this case there was no right to know, only prurient interest and morbid curiosity. Not everyone agreed (and certainly not cable news). If only Anthony’s novel had been available then, it would have been assigned reading. It’s the perfect answer to media callousness.
Killer Nashville Noir: Cold-Blooded, a Killer Nashville Anthology
Killer Nashville is an international thriller, mystery, crime literature writers’ conference held annually in downtown Nashville, TN. The conference draws some of the genre’s best writers to mix and mingle with aspiring authors and fans.
This year, for the first time, conference founder, Clay Stafford, produced a collection of twenty short stories for the anthology Cold-Blooded. He’s pulled together such well-known thriller writers as, Jeffery Deaver, Anne Perry, Robert Dugoni, Heywood Gould, Maggie Toussaint, Mary Burton, Donald Bain, and Jefferson Bass. But the collection also includes many equally talented but lesser known writers, and it is works of seven of those people that I would like to introduce you to.
12/10/2015. BOOK REVIEW: THE TIDE KING BY JEN MICHALSKI
Jen Michalski is a wonderful storyteller. You could read her novel The Tide King purely for the characters and events that fit in with the reality we know. One reviewer on Amazon said she’d done that, finding the eternal-life-giving herb in the story unnecessary. If you read the novel that way, you’ll be treated to a beautiful piece of writing with well-developed characters and an exciting plot, but you will miss so much.
In her guest blog, “A Jolt of Vertigo,” published on Late Last Night Books last month, Michalski said she found herself writing about the fantastic herb because “sometimes reality is too constricting.” I never thought I would be a fan of magical realism in novels because I’ve always considered myself a true realist, a person who tells it like it is in her writing and her life. But The Tide King showed me how a well-grounded magic element or event allows a story to explore the meaning of what is in ways that otherwise it never could.
12/7/2015 — Reading and Appreciating Paul Auster
I’ve become a big fan of the American writer Paul Auster—and not just because his first novella, City of Glass, was rejected by seventeen publishers before finding a home and launching a prolific, thirty-year literary career (and yes, that means I’m a bit late in joining his fan club). I read the New York Trilogy (which includes City of Glass) last year and loved it, but it was only last month that circumstances led to me to pick up another Auster novel, Invisible (2009), which I found even more fascinating.
11/20/15 STAY-AT-HOME DADS: BRAFF’S THE DADDY DIARIES AND PERROTTA’S LITTLE CHILDREN I’ve bought three books because of tweets. Joshua Braff’s The Daddy Diaries was one. I expected a stay-at-home dad with an infant or toddlers, in the vein of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. But the children in Joshua Braff’s novel aren’t little. The protagonist’s daughter is 10, his son 13.
10/17/2015 – The Holocaust Memoir
Thank you to Steve Feuer and his Gihon River Press, http://www.gihonriverpress.com, whose mission is to honor the memory of the millions who died in the Holocaust by publishing the stories of those who survived. One of his authors is Miriam M. Brysk, a child survivor who has written two powerful books about the Holocaust.
10/13/15 – Review of Louise Colln’s The Women of Rogers Street
Don’t judge a book by its cover or its title. A blue-eyed woman’s image superimposed on colorful metropolis suggests a story of sunshine and roses, but that is not the story of The Women of Rogers Street. Ms. Colln has crafted an exciting and compelling, multi-themed, character-driven novel, that encompasses human trafficking, class differences, deceit, deception, adultery, and ultimately a journey to self-knowledge, redemption, and finding true love.
10/10/2015. BOOK REVIEW—SOMEONE BY ALICE McDERMOTT
Alice McDermott has written several highly acclaimed novels, including one that won the National Book Award and three others that were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She also teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which is only about 20 miles up the road from where I live. Despite her obvious writing skill and her physical proximity, I had never read one of her novels until now. To introduce myself to her work, I chose her most recent novel, Someone, and I don’t regret my choice. Someone took me into the mind of a sensitive, yet strong, woman named Marie Commeford, who searches throughout her life to understand the line between joy and sorrow, a deep but narrow crevasse that seems to open and close at will.
9/20/15 REVIEW OF JOYCE RENWICK’S IN PRAISE OF WHAT PERSISTS “I kept finding the goat wandering in the dining room, or standing on the front room fireplace mantel just like she was wild on some mountainside… Pie Face was just an ordinary American mongrel milk goat, mostly black with white wedges under her eyes that gave her the name…[She] weighed about a hundred pounds and would chew or lick anything in sight that might contain minerals. She bit me every time I milked her so I’d gotten to expect it.”—from “The Goat” in the posthumous collection In Praise of What Persists.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of sequels, and even a few prequels, because I’m working on a sequel of my own. I’ve also been reading a lot of books with older protagonists because my main character is in his seventies. So it was no surprise that I picked up Rachel Joyce’s The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, a follow-on to her enchanting best seller of 2012, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The principal characters are the same and the new novel is in many ways another chapter of the story, but it is neither a prequel nor a sequel. It’s an “equel.”
The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
Review by Garry Craig Powell
Subtitled Why we tell stories, this book, which took the author 34 years to write, is not only Booker’s magnum opus, but one the great works of contemporary criticism. Building on Jungian archetypal psychology (and who isn’t a Jungian?) Booker’s thesis is that we read stories because we need to, in order to make sense of our lives, and more specifically because stories provide us with a blueprint for what Jung called individuation. For this reason, he contends, stories from all over the world, whether folktales or highly refined literary forms such as epic poetry or the modernist novel, or for that matter lowbrow entertainments like the James Bond movies, all tend to follow one of seven basic plots.
8/13/15 A Review of the Works of Tana French
It’s one thing when a writer wins a book award for a novel, especially if it is their first novel. But when the same writer wins awards for her subsequent novels, particularly if the novels are part of a series, you know something special is happening.
In 2008 Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, walked away with just about every major award for the “Best First Novel,” the Edgar, the Anthony, the Macavity, and the Barry Award. The novel was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 2012, her third novel, Faithful Place, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Broken Harbor, her fourth novel, won the Irish Book Award for Irish Crime Fiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the Mystery/Thriller category.
7/20/15 REVIEW OF KATIE GILMARTIN’S BLACKMAIL, MY LOVE
Yet the San Francisco we know today—the city so embracing of gay people—is not the San Francisco that existed in the 1950s when Blackmail, My Love takes place. The book resonated for me because I remember the fear I felt when, as a teenager in the early ’60s, I realized I might be homosexual and that, as I became an adult and remained wifeless, everyone else would suspect the truth.
7/10/2015. BOOK REVIEW: DARK ROAD, DEAD END BY PHILIP CIOFFARI
I love a novel that teaches me about a phenomenon or a historical event. In my past two posts, I talked about The Tilted World, which introduced me to the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. This month I want to talk about another disaster that’s taking place even as I write: the smuggling of exotic and endangered animals, stolen from their natural habitats, into the United States for profit. Dark Road, Dead End, a novel by Philip Cioffari, explores the smarmy world of animal smugglers and the law enforcement officers who risk their lives trying to shut the practice down.
I wish I could introduce you to Elena Ferrante, but I can’t. The best I can do is make a stab at introducing you to her work. To some extent, of course, that is the case with all authors, although some writers appear so often in the media, we can be lulled into thinking we really do know them.
That is not a danger with Elena Ferrante. It’s not just that Ferrante is a pen name or that the author is reclusive. It is that she has, from the start, insisted her identity remain a mystery. When her first novel, Troubling Love, came out in 1991, she told her publisher that writing it was enough. There would be no signings, no readings, no appearances at conferences. Should it win a prize, she wouldn’t even attend the ceremony. Her letter to her published explained: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.”
In her new novel Newport, Jill Morrow creates a mystery worthy of Masterpiece Theatre with unexpected and clever twists on the British model. One surprise is there is no crime and no death—until the gathering-of-the-suspects scene. And then there’s another surprise, and another.
It’s the 1920s and suave lawyer Adrian de la Noye is on a ferry to Newport. He’s on his way to an opulent sea view cottage, “beautiful in an old-fashioned, lavender-and-crepe sort of way,” at the insistence of his firm’s wealthiest client to draft a new will. At Adrian’s side is his awkward young colleague Jim Reid.
6/20/15 Re-reading Anne Tyler: “She took the bowl of peas and brought it down on his head. It didn’t break, but peas flew everywhere.” Meet Pearl, having supper with her little girl Jenny and her two teenage sons in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant: “Jenny’s face was streaming with tears, but she wasn’t making a sound and Pearl seemed unaware of her.
6/13/2015—Book Review: Disarmed An Exceptional Journey, by Ginger Manley.
The subtitle “An Exceptional Journey” for Ginger Manley’s, Disarmed, is indeed an accurate description of this remarkable memoir. It is a story of a fifty-year relationship with her husband, John Manley, a relationship with a doubtful beginning. It is an inspiring account of the couple’s fortitude in overcoming horrendous physical trauma, homelessness, and the overwhelming odds of keeping their marriage intact. The divorce rate in couples with a disability is ninety percent. This is the story of how the Manley’s beat those odds.
When I was growing up, a summer reading list was big and heavy; heavy in the sense that it included those weighty tomes that you didn’t have time for during the rest of year—War and Peace, Ulysses, the Illiad. Gradually the summer list turned to beach reading, which was the exact opposite—easy books that you could read and enjoy without much thought. They provided an escape and a way to spend hours lying in the sun getting skin cancer without exerting too much effort. That seemed to lead to a burst in escapist literature of many genres: the kind of book you enjoyed but forgot as soon as you put it down.
Alexandra Fuller moved to Wyoming two decades ago—but it’s her twenty years growing up in Zambia that inhabit her psyche and her writing. I know, I know, it’s my third post in a row about Africa. And about heartbreak. I’ve been plenty of other places, and heartbreak happens everywhere, but Africa keeps coming to me.
The book is titled Leaving Before the Rains Come, words the author’s father said about deciding to sell his farm beside the Zambesi River. It refers as well to the author’s anfractuous path to leaving her marriage.
5/17/2015 – In a Fisherman’s Language
As author of the 90s Club mystery series featuring the 90 year olds at Whisperwood Retirement Village, I give talks about the successes and accomplishments of people in their 90s and 100s. One of my prime examples is Captain James Arruda Henry.
5/10/2015—BOOK REVIEW: THE TILTED WORLD BY TOM FRANKLIN AND BETH ANN FENNELLY (ONE OF THE BEST HISTORICAL NOVELS I’VE EVER READ)
In March 1927, after months of nearly nonstop rainfall, a levee on the Mississippi River near Greenville, Mississippi, collapsed with more than double the water volume of Niagara Falls. The deluge, combined with flooding from additional breaks in the levee system, covered 27,000 square miles in 10 states up to a depth of 30 feet. Authorities have called it the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States. And yet many people have never heard of it. In their gripping new novel The Tilted World, Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly have righted that omission and brought the horrors and heroism of the flood to life.
5/7/15 – Review: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
Some of my best friends are copy editors. No, really. After decades working as a journalist, and now as a novelist, I know how important copy editors can be, how often they save writers from embarrassing errors, and how underappreciated (and underpaid) they are. I’m also aware of the stereotype that suggests copy editors are obsessed, persnickety, humorless, and mean. Like most stereotypes, there’s some truth to it…but not that much.
Enter Mary Norris, the long time page OK’er at The New Yorker, and her new memoir, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. The book is actually a modified memoir—one part life story, one part inside look at the magazine, and two parts lessons on the rules of grammar and why they make sense (but sometimes don’t). Since publication last month, the book has received rave reviews, perhaps because a lot of copy editors, present and past, were selected by their publications to review it.