When I told my wife and some friends that I was finally going to take their advice and read one of Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache novels, they all told me the same thing: You must read them in order! So of course I started with No 2, A Fatal Grace, and then turned to The Beautiful Mystery, which is No. 8. Well, I’m here to tell you that despite what everyone tells you, you can read Penny’s novels out of order and still live to sing their praises.
8/4/14 – THE JANE AUSTEN PERSUASION
When I told my adult daughters and son-in-law I’d be reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion for book club, all three pulled disgust faces. “Why?” groaned my older daughter, a Harvard graduate. “I couldn’t even finish Pride and Prejudice,” said my son-in-law, who had reveled in Plato and Cervantes and the rest of St. John’s Great Books curriculum. My younger daughter, another product of a Great Books curriculum, recalled that Harold Bloom had a reputation for droning on about Persuasion for reasons she was unable to fathom.
Lynn Darling spent her life losing her way. She used to love the adventure, but by the time she’s into her fifties, a widow of ten years with her daughter off to college, getting lost has lost its allure. In order to find her way, both practically and metaphorically, Darling runs away to the Vermont woods only to find more ways to be lost.
THE SUBJECTIVITY OF READING: HOW DO YOUR FAVORITE BOOKS FARE ON AMAZON?
I noticed recently that one of my favorite books, Anita Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning Hotel Du Lac, averages only 3.7 stars with 82 Amazon reviewers. Not a terrible rating, but surprisingly low to me since I love the book. Amazon features this sentence, quoted from one of the reviews: “The main character was dull and not very likeable, but that may have been the point.” Amazon adds, “10 reviewers made similar comments.”
7/17/2014 – A Cafe of Ideas
The Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, fourth century B.C., once carried a lamp around in daylight looking for an honest man. I am not a philosopher, but I’ve thought about carrying a lamp around like Diogenes looking not for an honest man but for a good conversation. So imagine my envy when I visited Les Deux Magots and Le Cafe de Flore, two cafes in the Rive Gauche section of Paris, which Rick Steves calls “the cafes of ideas.”
As Steves says in his guidebook to Paris, “From Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism (1900) to Picasso’s Cubism (1910s) to Hemingway’s spare prose (‘20s) to Sartre’s Existentialism (with his girlfriend Simone de Beauvoir
7/13/2014 – CHALLENGED
What do a children’s story involving a wild rumpus, a novel about the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, and a teenager’s sarcastic narration of a few days in his life have in common? Not much on the surface. But Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak), The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), and The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) are members of a surprisingly large club: at one time or another, each of these literary works has been banned somewhere in the United States.
7/10/14—A REVIEW OF THIS BRIGHT RIVER BY PATRICK SOMERVILLE
Sometimes a novel is interesting because of its story. Sometimes because of its characters. And sometimes because of the author’s writing techniques. I started reading This Bright River by Patrick Somerville expecting to be enticed by the novel’s story. I had read Somerville’s previous novel, The Cradle, a few years ago and liked the story about expectant parents’ search for the mother’s childhood cradle, an effort that brings them much more than a cradle. From the beginning, however, This Bright River is different and much darker.
7/7/2014 — WHY YOU SHOULD REREAD ANNA KARENINA — AT LEAST ONCE A DECADE
I have a confession to make. I don’t read long books—not even after e-books eliminated two of my complaints (hard to hold in bed and painful if dropped on a toe). The problem is that too many long books just aren’t worth the investment of time, often because of authors who don’t know what to leave out or editors too submissive to cut. I did try to read The Goldfinch to see what the fuss was about, but the laborious writing and the abuse of the semicolon (my favorite mark of punctuation) led me to give up after five pages.
Of course there are exceptions to my big book phobia—beginning with almost everything Tolstoy and Dickens wrote.
Ever since she sat beside me in 11th grade English class, I suspected that Judith Frank had something to tell the world – and the writing chops to tell it. Over the years Judy confirmed my suspicions repeatedly, winning prizes for her poignant poetry even back in high school and going on to become an author of both scholarly works and prize-winning fiction. If I had any lingering doubt, her new novel All I Love and Know, has shattered it.
THE SPIRIT MOVES ME
I sometimes wonder why I do it—why I write. On occasion I’m inspired and it’s fun, but if I’m honest, it’s usually a struggle. It rarely comes easy and when it’s not going well I am in a perennial state of anxiety and gloom. So why don’t I just give it up?
6/29/14 OUR GUEST BLOGGER ON JULY 1 WILL BE GARRY CRAIG POWELL, AUTHOR OF STONING THE DEVIL
Garry Craig Powell was educated at the universities of Cambridge, Durham, and Arizona. Living in the Persian Gulf and teaching on the women’s campus of the national university inspired him to write his novel-in-stories, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), set in the UAE. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2009, McSweeney’s, Nimrod, New Orleans Review, and other literary magazines. He has been awarded fellowships by the Arkansas Arts Council and the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow.
I usually write about books—reading books, writing books, appreciating books. At the core of a good book is good writing, something most would agree is an art form. Writing can be transformative, completely engrossing entertainment which sparks the imagination and challenges us to see and understand things we may have otherwise never dreamed of.
SENSUAL IMPRESSIONS: A Confederacy of Dunces/The Master and Margarita
My husband and I were 23 and 22 when we visited New Orleans two months before John Kennedy Toole’s March 26, 1969, suicide.
I remember a quaint room off a garden with a wrought iron fence, the smokey power of Nat and Canonball Adderley’s jazz, and the tinny horns of old men who played for tips in narrow spaces between the clubs. This year, when I first read Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, the impression of sensual overload came rushing back. New Orleans is a city that doesn’t let go.
Afraid my Kindle might run out of juice, I wanted a small book for backup for a recent flight and, because I wanted something light to carry, grabbed off my bookshelves the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’d read it at least three times over the years and thought I might be bored. Think again. Capote amazed me.
6/17/2014 – Reality vs. the Stuff of Dreams
In my writers’ critique group, a complaint is sometimes hurled at another writer’s plot points by saying, “I don’t believe it, couldn’t happen. It’s not realistic.” Since we are writing fiction, is this a valid criticism?
One might say that so many unbelievable things do happen—we see them online everyday–that we should accept the possibilities, no matter how bizarre. We can point to the old standby from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Another might say that fiction requires a “willing suspension of disbelief.”
For mystery writers, Dr. Max M. Houck, director of D.C.’s Department of Forensic Sciences, speaking
6/13/14 – THE BULWER-LYTTON FICTION CONTEST: WHEN REALLY BAD IS REALLY GOOD
Are your writing chops good enough to craft rotten prose? I mean, really rotten prose. If they are, it’s time to prove it by submitting to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, the competition that asks contestants to create a first sentence to an utter bomb of a novel. With enough skill, that sentence will equal or surpass the famous stinker produced by the contest’s namesake, Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” (Paul Clifford, 1830)
The confusing tangents!
6/10/2014—CHARACTERS I’LL NEVER FORGET
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is a long, dense book filled with love, friendship, loss, fear, disappointment—nearly the gamut of human emotions. I love everything about this rich book, but the feature that made the most indelible imprint on my mind was Owen Meany. Every time I glance at the book, wherever it happens to be lying, I see Owen. Whenever I mention the book, or anybody asks me about it, I see Owen. Owen is a unique assembly of physical and mental characteristics who for me will always be the symbol of John Irving’s writing.
So who is Owen?
There’s something special about discovering a young author who’s really good. You can savor that first book while looking forward to the next, knowing that chances are, each succeeding work will be even better than the last. So imagine the kick of discovering an impressive author who’s only sixteen. Remember Me, a young adult coming of age novel written in verse, was published last month by Bold Stroke Books. The author, Melanie Batchelor, is a high school junior, who actually penned the novel when she was fourteen.
6/4/14 – MAKING TIME FOR SERENDIPITY
Inexplicably, I found A.S.A. Harrison’s novel The Silent Wife, on my nightstand. Where did this book come from? Did my mother leave it for me? Did I buy it for a book club meeting I couldn’t attend and abandon it? I had no clue, but I picked it up and started reading.
GUEST BLOGGER: The Best Kind of Trouble is Girl Trouble
So you’re trying to come up with a compelling story—one with drama, tension, and maybe even some danger. My suggestion for a go-to main character: a teenage girl.
Teenagers may not seem like an ideal main character, especially for a mystery. They’re under their parents’ thumbs so they can’t easily investigate crimes. They don’t usually have a wealth of resources at their disposal. They can’t be FBI agents or police officers or even dirty politicians.
But teenagers, especially teenage girls, can realistically bring some other wonderful qualities to the table, namely