I recall years ago reading about the success formula for television sitcoms: the plots can, and often should, be completely implausible, but they must be probable. In other words, the situation and actions can be as weird as you like—the weirder, the funnier—but the sequence of events has to make sense within that weird context. Lucy wandering lost in the New York City subway with her head stuck in a mammoth loving cup was perfectly acceptable, and hilarious, so long as Ricky didn’t suddenly materialize inexplicably out of nowhere to rescue her.
This formula makes me think of my favorite movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. To me, it represents the culmination of Hitchcock’s genius: a realism so rarified that it presents completely unbelievable situations in ways that make them seem perfectly natural.
Last month I reflected on on how Beverly Clearly‘s death brought back cherished memories of childhood reading. Most especially, it reminded me of the many children’s series that kicked off a lifetime of reading for me: Cleary, Carolyn Haywood, Madeline L’Engel, Sydney Taylor, and Noel Streatfeild among them.
I asked if others had similar memories, especially about series I may have forgotten.
Nancy Drew and Judy Blume Books
I was surprised to get so few responses. Perhaps I had done a better job than I thought remember. Perhaps I was a broader reader than I remembered. But there were a few obvious series I had embarrassingly overlooked:
How could I have forgotten?
For months, I’ve been contemplating giving up—not just this column, but writing. Altogether. I hope this won’t sound like a long whine, whinge, or worse—the dreaded ‘mansplaining.’ But for a long time, there has been no interest in my work from the industry, even though I’m fairly sure I write better than I did fifteen years ago, when there was a lot of interest. Some of that, I suspect, is because of the current ‘woke’ moment—what a ‘vile phrase’ that is, to quote the Bard. But I’ve moaned about that before so I won’t now.
It could also be because my writing simply isn’t engaging a new, different audience: one that is not only ‘woker’ (presumably, if we can trust the media), but one is that is doubtless younger, and suffers from a shorter attention span.
Jerry A. Rose & Lucy Rose Fischer, The Journalist (Spark Press, 2020)
She probably doesn’t remember, but Lucy Rose Fischer attended my birthday party at my house in Gloversville, New York when I was 7 or 8 years old, and I remember visiting their house probably for a reciprocal activity. I also knew about her older brother Jerry’s being a reporter covering Vietnam and his dying there in 1965. For that reason and because of my interest in Vietnam, I wanted to read Lucy’s book that honors Jerry and shares his story.
I would recommend The Journalist even without a personal connection as a way to keep alive the sad story of America’s involvement in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries post-World War II.
The death of Beverly Clearly last month immediately brought me back to the Evanston Public Library cerca 1966. I saw my 8-year-old self scouring the shelves for every book I could find about Ramona, Ribsy, or Henry Huggins. I limited myself to 5 books per check-out. But I loved that I could come back for more.
My heart beat fast every time I returned to the library for another fix. It beat even faster when I carried my cache home and dove into the stories. My goal was to read Cleary’s entire oeuvre.
A Serie-ous Habit
I was only busy clearing out the Cleary collection because I had read my way through every one of Carolyn Haywood‘s series.
We’re all being urged to read ‘more diverse voices’ these days, although you may have noticed that almost all of the writers you’re being told to read write in English, live in the United States or England and have been to top-tier universities. Curiously, they’re also nearly of the same currently fashionable ethnicity, and the majority of them are of the same sex, or gender if you prefer. Odder still, the stories resemble each other: nearly all are victim narratives, ‘heartbreaking’ stories of loss, oppression, repression, cruelty, violence and slavery. And there’s a bogeyman (I choose the gender deliberately here) common to all these novels too. You know who that is.
Let me state categorically, for anyone who doesn’t know my views, that I am not defending the hegemony of the white male, and welcome diverse voices, provided they are talented, and provided they are—well, diverse.
Daniel Silva, The Order (2020)
If there were an award for the best opening chapter of a fiction, including characterization, dialogue, plot and theme, the first chapter of The Order would be in the running. Daniel Silva, after all, is no amateur in beginning a novel that feels that it has been recorded by cameras, microphones and probes into each characters mind. The initial scene in The Order suggests something tragic has happened at the Vatican. The chapter’s main character, Archbishop Luigi Donati, fears the worst. It turns out his mentor, Pope Paul VII, is dead and the circumstances are suspicious.
Thus begins a narrative featuring the Church of Rome and the Church’s most trusted Jew––Gabriel Allon. The complexity, including a fictional account of the origins of the Church, is portrayed realistically, with verve and in a tasteful manner, considering Allon’s role, must represent a heresy to millions.
Recently I attended a lecture about Irish “occasional poetry.” This doesn’t mean poetry written now and again; it means poetry written and performed for special occasions: holidays, commemorations, funerals and the like. The most obvious of these that comes to mind is “The Hill We Climb,” the poem commissioned for, written and performed by Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration.
I won’t get into a critique of the poem, except to say that I liked it on the whole, and that, like most people, I admire Ms. Gorman’s talents. Nor will I comment much on an infamous precursor, “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander, performed at President Obama’s first inaugural in 2009. (Suffice to say that at the time I had a good rant about it with my favorite poet, Alexandra Burack, who also happens to be my cousin.)
Let me say first that this was a large Zoom group, and the editor and author are both alumni of Selwyn, one of the colleges of the University of Cambridge, as I am. I did manage to ask one question. Since it was a private group I shall not name the figures, though you may be able to guess who they are, particularly the editor.
The editor founded one of the largest independent publishers in the world in the eighties, and has published Booker Prize winners and Nobel Prize winners. He also discovered JK Rowling–to whom he offered the princely advance of £1,500 for her first novel. (Her agent persuaded him to raise the offer to £2,500!) Many people in the meeting asked questions about how to find a publisher, whether an agent was necessary, and so on.
Victor LaValle, The Changeling, 2017, Maggie Stiefvater, Call Down the Hawk, & Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand, 2018
Fantasy fiction seems to be in the midst of a crisis. The content of recent novels is ripe with bizarre plots and characters––the more extreme the better. Of course, I’m basing this on a small sample, but it’s worth pointing out in hopes someone will read this and prove me wrong.
I couldn’t finish The Changeling, an award-winning novel. It is billed as a fantasy, but what makes it so is a macabre story line where the fantasy portion only appears half way through the book. The book’s title doesn’t make sense for over two hundred pages. The Changeling is really horror, not fantasy, fiction.
“She had discovered that this was the tragedy of being human: unlike every other living thing, each person lived alone inside themselves, always seeking to build a bridge from soul to soul but never really succeeding, at least not for a few shining moments, now and then.” –Carol Bird, A Home Worth Having, 2020.
The great human paradox. Anyone who has lost a loved one to death—and we all have—knows it is so. All human souls have the grief of loss in common, yet each of us must grieve alone. And because this paradox is so obvious in our lived experience, we try to transcend it. Failing that, which we invariably do, we deny it.
Is that why editors of fiction so often insist that human points of view must always be given in isolation from one another?
Last month I asked readers about favorite books on pandemics, plagues, exile, quarantines, and social isolation–on many of our minds for obvious reasons. This month I wanted to share the list of selections in case you have a bit of time on your hands.
Thanks to everyone who helped me build these lists. I’m looking forward to reading some of the selections as the lock-downs promise to continue. Then again, perhaps I’ll just keep plowing through Proust.
Fictional Books on Pandemics, Plagues, and Social Isolation
Here’s a short list of fictional books on pandemics, plagues, and other human tragedies that require quarantines and other forms of social isolation:
- The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Ten young Italian aristocrats flee Florence to escape the bubonic plague and self-isolate in a secluded countryside villa telling stories, some tragic, some bawdy and irreverent.
It struck me recently that I still hadn’t read all of Shakespeare, and there was no real excuse. After all, I claim to be a writer, in English, and Shakespeare has been regarded as the prince of poets for four hundred years. It’s possible that in our benighted days, when even university curricula frequently try to teach identity politics—which means bombarding their students with woke authors of cool ethnicities and sexual persuasions, among other things—Shakespeare, as a Dead White Male from an evil colonial country, is considered irrelevant, or worse, pernicious. But quite apart from the fact that the man was surely gay or bisexual (it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s read the sonnets coming to any other conclusion) and that his plays are full of gender-fluid people, there are compelling literary reasons to read him too.
Call Down The Hawk is book one of The Dream Trilogy by fantasy author Maggie Stiefvater. Stiefvater has created a unique fantasy world in which there are dreamers who can create things in the real world––some times those dreams are under their control; sometimes not. Sometimes they dream duplicates of themselves, which can get complicated. Then there are those who are hunting the dreamers to kill them.
Stiefvater is a master at creating fantastic worlds. The problem to this reader is that the world overwhelms the story. The lack of a defined plot in the early chapters made my following the story a challenge. That’s an issue which only improves slightly as the story progresses.
That’s not to say she doesn’t create interesting characters as well as well as interesting possibilities.
Think of a movie or book you love where not a single character, not even the hero, is truly virtuous. For old-timers like me, “The Sting” (you know, starring Robert Redford) immediately comes to mind. For literary types, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith. Both are about con artists, though the crooks in “The Sting” are fun and are just ripping off illegal gamblers, where Mr. Ripley is, well, pretty much everything that personifies awfulness. The fact is that there are compelling anti-heroes for all literary tastes, the common ingredient being that we somehow end up rooting for them despite their criminality. What is the point of works like this–what are we supposed to do with them? Now that I’m working on a novel about a professional rumrunner during Prohibition (based very loosely on my grandfather), these questions are beginning to haunt me.
One “silver lining” of the COVID-19 pandemic has been time (dare I say too much time?) for reading. I am plowing through my library, and may even complete my lifelong quest to finish Proust. I’m also drawn to books about social distancing, pandemic-inspired and otherwise.
I know I’m not alone here. The movies and documentaries about plagues and pandemics topping Netflix’s lists make that obvious. So do recent book club suggestions to resurrect books like Love in the Time of Cholera and Station Eleven. So I thought it might be fun this month to see what other books about pandemics, plagues, quarantines, exile, and/or social distancing homebound readers have found.
Socially Distant Stories
As both an historian of medicine and science writer, I have many books about plagues and pandemics on my bookshelves.
Some of the finest thriller and crime writers of all time have come from the British isles starting with Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Ireland’s Tana French is on the path to joining the coterie of highly regarded contemporary mystery/thriller authors who include P.D. James, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, and Lee Child.
French has a unique story-telling style that may not suit all readers––particularly if your preference is for short, action-filled scenes. French constructs her stories as if building a castle, stone by stone.
Both novels I read had female protagonists struggling to following their intuition and not the rules set for them by their male counterparts. This is done without preaching which I appreciate.
In The Likeness French sets the story around a unique set of circumstances––the victim of a murder bares an uncanny resemblance to a former member of the Murder Squad, a specialist in going underground in disguise.
Speaking of self-suppressing heroines (well I was, anyway), consider the protagonist of Daphne Du Maurier’s blockbuster 1938 novel, Rebecca. This first-person narrator is so self-deprecating that she never thinks it worthwhile to reveal her name, though she makes it clear that it’s a memorable one. The Rebecca of the title is the first Mrs. Maximilian de Winter, the narrator’s predecessor in marriage to a handsome but brooding aristocrat a good 20 years older than his naïve new bride. The plot centers on the narrator’s sense of utter inferiority—to the point of self-erasure—in comparison to her husband’s formidable first wife. The novel’s ingenious arc is only incompletely evident in the multiple movie and mini-series versions made over the decades (the best and most famous of which is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film).
Do a narrator’s accent and voice necessarily enhance the audiobook experience, even if they differ from the author’s? Clearly some audiobook producers think so. But would the author agree? The reader/listener?
I pondered audiobooks and accents in last month’s blog (The Narrator’s Accent). It turned out that I wasn’t the only one with strong opinions on the subject.
Most people who responded turned out to be fans of accented audiobooks. In this month’s blog, I share some of their responses.
The Audiobook Experience
Is a regional accent helpful in creating atmosphere? Or does it restrict a listener’s imagination? Does it pull you out of the story because you are struggling to understand the words?
Most fiction writers don’t read much poetry, let’s be honest. I confess I don’t read much contemporary American poetry myself. So much of it is either incomprehensible–even to someone who has a higher degree in Creative Writing–or pretentious, or simply tedious in its insistence on the usual woke themes. However, this past few weeks I’ve been reading the Oxford Library of English Poetry, a three-volume anthology edited by John Wain, and have found it not only immensely pleasurable, but also, I believe, useful.
Let’s take the pleasure part first. This anthology contains no American verse, and as Wain himself admits, there have been many great American poets. If you were to make an anthology of the best verse in English, a number of them would have to be included: Whitman and Emily Dickinson are two obvious giants.
Alan Cheuse’s 1982 lyrical biography of John Reed is mistitled. While the title refers to Reed’s fellow travelers of the cultural and political upheaval that took place during the first decades of the 20th century, it is Reed’s life story that Cheuse has told no doubt because Reed in many respects was one of the main players in that era’s story.
Reed is best known for his Ten Days That Shook the World, the story of the Communist takeover of the Russian Revolution. Before travelling to Russia where he passed away in October 1920 from typhus, however, he had chronicled for alternative magazines like The Masses, the labor movement wars in the U.S. and the rise of the socialist movement in the U.S.
“She knew, to the moving of a feather, what she could do with him and what she could not. Her immediate wish was to enable him to draw all possible pleasure from his triumph of the day, and therefore she would say no word to signify that his glory was founded on her sacrifice.” –Anthony Trollope, Golden Lion of Granpère
Every inch the Victorian novelist, Trollope regarded female self-sacrifice as a cardinal virtue. And yet he was surprisingly ahead of his time–and ahead of other male writers–in exploring the problems of identity, self-worth and self-assertion among his female characters. He was sharply aware of the untenable and unethical oppression of women in patriarchal Victorian society. His scores of novels relentlessly explore this problem.
Oh no, I thought, as Dominic Hoffman read the opening lines of Yaa Gyasi‘s Homegoing with what struck me as an African accent. Thanks to the narrator’s accent, I am going to struggle to understand this audiobook. Plus I was miffed to hear a man narrating a book written by a woman and following a matrilineal lineage.
My next audiobook experience evoked similar reactions. In Say Nothing, Belfast actor Matthew Blaney uses a thick brogue to read Patrick Raddon Keefe’s “true story of murder in mystery in Northern Ireland.” This time whether the voice was recognizably male or female didn’t bother me, however: gender seemed less central to the narrative, which involves a woman’s kidnapping, plus backstory about the IRA during the Troubles.