“…Her face screwed up into a scribble.” “I feel like I pollute when I show too much mood, so I smile, even when I ache inside.” “Each time I meet him I pretend I haven’t met him, because he doesn’t remember meeting me because we are being casual, and casual means you are waterproof and no one face soaks into you”: all in the poetic prose of the novel Hornito, My Lie Life, my introduction to Mike Albo and why I fell in love with him as a writer. An M.A. from Columbia, Albo offers two novels, two novellas, three plays, several solo stage performances, screen performances, along with contributions to, among others, the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, GQ, and The Village Voice.
Much hand-wringing and self-examination has taken place since the US Presidential election about why so many people, political pundits and journalists included, were blindsided by the result. The ‘echo chamber’ as a metaphor for social media has been the most frequently cited cause. Nowadays most of us, the argument goes, get our news from Twitter or Facebook feeds. This is true, not only for the millennials, but equally or almost so for older generations. Because most of us are reading ‘news’ (more often opinion, when it comes down to it) from our friends, who are likely to share our views, there’s a danger that our prejudices are never challenged and that we live increasingly in a world that bears little resemblance to reality.
I’m heading to four conferences this spring. That’s a lot, but I go because I always come away with something of value.
Writers’ conferences offer speakers touching on subjects of import to me as I seek to perfect my writing and reach more readers.
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.
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.
Take a beautiful sea setting, add a few endearing but complex characters, top it off with serious moral dilemmas, and what do you get? The Light Between Oceans, an excellent debut novel by M.L. Stedman.
Set mostly at a lighthouse on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Australia, The Light Between Oceans tells the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, the lighthouse keeper and his wife, who live alone on the island, visited only once a season by two men who bring them supplies. This isolated existence suits Tom, who believes that if he can get far enough away from people and memories, time will heal the mental and emotional wounds he carries from fighting in World War I, especially the nightmares that remind him of the blood on his hands.
Are you currently reading a novel? How did it land on your reading list?
Happy Holidays! As I contemplate the dismal political scene in this country, I am reminded of a quote from a 19th century suffragette whose name I don’t remember: “Take up your pen and save the world.” Or as Harriet Beecher Stowe said, “It’s a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong, something the best people have always done.” She did that in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that helped change this country.
In a google search of quotes on this subject, I found a column on Goodreads.com that features a number of quotes about taking up the pen. Most of them are banal or cynical, but here are a few that echo the quotes above.
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks has everything — love, hate, jealousy, violence, intrigue, battles, and faith. And why shouldn’t it? It’s a retelling of the biblical story of David, though the word “retelling” doesn’t do justice to Brooks’s success in breathing new life into the three-thousand-year-old character many readers think they already know.
David is familiar to us as the man who killed the giant Goliath, united the people of Israel, played the harp, and wrote many of the Psalms. That’s about all I remembered of him when I opened the book. The novel so intrigued me that I’ve since reread the biblical accounts to see how they differ from Brooks’s.
Listening to James Michener’s Chesapeake on recent driving trips, I’m finding myself increasingly uncomfortable. He’s cheating, I think. These characters – they are so vivid. He didn’t have to make them up from whole cloth. Doesn’t that make his life as a novelist considerably easier? Or his creative achievements less impressive?
The holiday season finds me grateful for the profound reading experiences of childhood. Remember when reading a book was living the book? Certain books and authors left a mark on my reading, my writing, and my life. And for the reading of my childhood, I owe special gratitude to my great-aunt Mildred Campbell.
My grandfather’s baby sister Midge was small but mighty. She grew up on the family’s strawberry farm in Tennessee. Witty and determined, Mildred became a history professor at Vassar College. Her cozy house on College Avenue in Poughkeepsie was full of books─including a shelf for the Oxford English Dictionary. She loved books and words; talked a lot; read a lot; wrote a lot.
Since I had the double assignment to post at the end of November and also to invite a guest blogger for the beginning of December, I took the opportunity to make sure our readers enjoy a full introduction to the wit, charm, and wonderful writing of Ellen Prentiss Campbell, who joins us on 1 December as our guest blogger. In the spirit of the holiday season, Ellen shares her childhood memories of the powerful impact of the books selected for her by a very special relative.
Ellen’s debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams (Apprentice House Press, reviewed here on 11-20-2016), was inspired by the detainment of the Japanese Ambassador to Germany, his staff and their families, at the Bedford Springs Hotel in 1945.
Here is my review of Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun’s latest, The Happy Marriage, which appeared in the latest issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books.
Chanukah Guilt is the title of Rabbi Illene Schneider’s first cozy mystery. The heroine is a female rabbi whose persistence in seeking answers about the supposed suicide of a young woman leads to the discovery of a double murder.
The Chanukah connection is an artificial overlay to the story and other than being “cute” due to the fact that Guilt almost sounds like Gelt, the title has nothing to do with the story.
I’ve written frequently about my admiration for small-press publishing, folks who are driven more by their love of the written word than by any expectation of making a commercial killing. It’s that willingness to simply go with what they love that leads many small presses to build impressive catalogs of work by authors of remarkable talent. This month I’m highlighting another example of this marriage of small press to big talent.
I originally heard about Ellen Prentiss Campbell from several sources almost simultaneously, one of which was our shared publisher. As small presses go, publishers don’t come much smaller than Apprentice House Press, run out of Loyola University. Of unique note, though, Apprentice House is both non-profit and student-run. Students learn by doing; authors get unparalleled input into the creative process behind bringing a traditionally published work into print.
Researching a novel can involve more than history books, archives, and the other usual resources for honing details of terrain, lifestyle, time. What about describing emotions, personality, and the intangible nuances?
The subject came to mind in riding along with a police officer on patrol. I asked the officer what resources she found helpful and that led to a conversation about lying. One book she found very useful, the police officer said, was Spy the Lie by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero with Don Tennant. The authors are former CIA officers who use a methodology developed by Houston to detect deception in the counterterrorism and criminal investigation realms. They show how these techniques can be applied in our daily lives.
Novels that pack a punch but still leave the reader feeling uplifted don’t come along very often. Too frequently, novels tend to depict the world we live in as dangerous and dreary or they’re filled with unflappable optimists and do-gooders. Swedish author Fredrik Backman walks the line between those two scenarios perfectly in his first two novels, A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry.
I read A Man Called Ove first and loved its main character, a grouchy old man who’s set in his ways and seems to have no tolerance for anyone who can’t understand that his way is not just the right way; it’s the only way.
Ten Great American Political Novels for Trying Times
As the campaign season draws to a close, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. But what about fiction with a strong political theme? Can it help us understand and make sense of the world around us? You bet it can, and I’ve got just the list to prove it.
Whether you’re fed up with politics and need an escape or you just can’t get enough of it, here are ten American political novels worth considering before Inauguration Day. The choices are mine, and I’ll warn you that I’ve left out a few that might seem particularly partisan (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, for example), as well as the many great foreign political classics (1984, The Trial, War and Peace, to name just a few).
If people join book clubs – or don’t – it’s mainly about the books. Or at least that’s what people claim.