Thursday, October 10, 2019

new american voices are crucial to our culture

Authors Eugenia Kim, Angie Kim and Reyna Grande

We shared such a powerful and moving evening at Fall for the Book Festival - for the New American Voices Award Ceremony.  First we heard from the judges, themselves immigrant writers - Reyna Grande - author of The Distance Between Us, and E.C. Osondu,  author of This House Is Not For Sale. Grande spoke about her place in American culture, her feelings of being intimidated, of not belonging no matter the success she'd achieved, of being mistaken at a literary event, for example, for the hired help,  of feelings she had navigating invisibility and, in spite of all this, how she claimed her space in the world by picking up a pen.

E. C. Osondu

As we all know this comes at a time when the status of immigrants is ever more precarious, when it is more important than ever to claim this country's heritage as a nation made great by immigrants.  So what a joy  it was to hear from Angie Kim - her novel Miracle Creek, framed as a courtroom thriller, a book which unpacks the experience of being a child of immigrants,  and of her father's experience of feeling reduced to the status of a child who could not speak the language or express himself with his customary sophistication.

At times like this I find myself reflecting that I too am an immigrant - that when I arrived in Boston, although I spoke the language, adjustment to American culture was deeply unsettling to my sense of self. A feeling of disconnect and of being "other"  has followed me all my life.  It is a sense that resurfaced when my husband and I  joined the American Foreign Service. I once again found myself living in foreign cultures as an alien - as an outsider.  I am well aware that my experience was cushioned.  I did not have to struggle financially.  I did not face racism.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

The painful experience of cultural adjustment, of never quite adjusting, of always remaining an outsider, of always being considered by others to be OTHER, has been an abiding aspect of my life.

I would not frame this as entirely negative, however.  It is otherness in literature which draws and compels me, also otherness in friendship and in love.  My closest friends, and the men I have loved tend to be iconoclasts, to feel themselves as "other" rather than happily swimming with the mainstream. So then, I wonder how much more intensely was this experience felt by the writers we heard from this evening?

We heard from Eugenia Kim, and from Melissa Rivero - author of The Affairs of the Falcons.  Rivero is an immigrant from Peru, who arrived in this country as an undocumented toddler. Her novel describes what it meant to come to terms with her status - always under the surface of who she was - she, who has become the mother of two, a lawyer - and now an award winning novelist.

I believe all of us came away from the evening with hearts full of gratitude and admiration. I'm excited to read their important books and discuss them with my friends and fellow readers.

Melissa Rivero who won the award this evening

Saturday, September 28, 2019

some book recommendations - including LESS by Andrew Sean Greer. VIDEO

There's been a  beautiful mountain of books to get through this September and here are some of the highlights!

First of all -  I highly recommend LESS which I talk about in the video above and which we are going to be discussing in our And The Winner Is.... book group at Dolley Madison Library in Mclean on October 3 at 1:00

But also... drum roll.... there's Fall For The Book Festival - with which I am deeply involved, and we are about to have the 21st year - October 10-12 So check it out!

I will have the pleasure of moderating one of the panels on the first day of the festival October 10:  which involves three wonderful and quite different books:

Think super smart Big Little Lies...

This one close to my heart - beautiful historical fiction by Carrie who was my editor at Washington Independent Review of Books 

Just started reading this - and so far it's delightful.

Also want to let you know I will be introducing Tim O'Brien at Politics and Prose
on October 18 - a book written to his sons, which I confess I have not yet read but will be reading asap!
In any case, it will be fun to see Tim again - we both taught at Emerson College in 1979 - it was my first job out of college (Emerson College!) and he won the National Book Award that year for Going After Cacciato.  Many memories...

To be continued...

Happy Reading!
#lessandrewseangreer #dadsmaybebook #carriecallaghan #lightofherown #jryanstradal #largerqueenorminnesota #giftedschoolbook #bruceholsinger

Friday, August 30, 2019

wife, writer, editor

''Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives," Meg Wolitzer says in her novel... The Wife.  So too, does every writer needs an editor.  But where does the writer leave off and the editor begin? And what if the editor also becomes the edited - not for the better, but as a less celebrated, more shrouded version of who she might have been without that writer in her life?

When you read a lot, books tend to converse with each other in your head. Right now in mine The Wife by Meg Wolitzer is conversing with Erica Jong's Fear of Flying - both of which I read for different book clubs.

"Wives tend, they hover," Wolitzer writes. "Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrap of dissatisfaction. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies.  We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else."

Her novel addresses the fallout of this function of being a wife - in the lives of Joe and Joan Castleman.  It opens on a plane to Helsinki, where they are flying so that Joe Castleman can receive the Helsinki Prize for Fiction. The novel is narrated by Joan, who has decided she's going to leave him, and as the story unfolds we grow to understand just how much she's had to do with making Joe into the acclaimed writer he is.

She meets him as a talented writing student of Joe's at Smith College.  They begin an affair which blossoms into marriage and then into other collaborations.  She stops writing her own work, gets an editing job, raises his children, disregards his infidelities and makes him who he is in the eyes of the world.

I became a wife (for the second time) in the 1980s, so some of the  things that concern a wife in those far off decades happened to me as well:  the folding down of my own career in favor of my husband's.  Over the years I've reflected with surprise on how I ( or we) never even considered the possibility that I might continue working at the New Yorker magazine when my husband was offered a job as a US Foreign Service Officer.  I've pondered this when watching my daughter and daughter-in-law conducting themselves and weighing their options.  Both have lived in separate countries from their partners on occasion, and pursued their own career ambitions.  I admire them for it.  Why didn't it occur to me to do the same?  Instead, I thought -well, I'm a woman; his career is more important to his self esteem than mine is to me -and me - well, I can have children - I can diversify!

It all worked out in its own way, I guess.  I didn't publish as much as I would have liked - as I left my tribe in the writing world to join a different tribe.  I learned some languages, traveled and raised my children.  Now I'm the age of Joan Castleman in The Wife, and doing my own thing at last.  You might say that together with Joe,  Joan also has an interesting and rewarding life - but it wasn't one where she got the same recognition or accolades as her husband.

In fact, early in the book she decides that bowing out is the sensible path - when she meets a famous novelist -  Elaine Mozell, who takes her on one side and tells her "Don't do it.... Don't think you can get their attention," she tells Joan .".. The men who write the reviews, who run the publishing houses, who edit the papers, the magazines, who decide who gets to be taken seriously, who gets put up on a pedestal for the rest of their lives.  Who gets to be King Shit.... I guess you could call it a conspiracy to keep the women's voices hushed and tiny and the men's voices loud," she says.

This brings me back to Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. She writes about how women writers are marginalized and  "confined to the ghetto of popular culture" - and when I read Fear of Flying last month I realized that up until now I had done this to  Erica Jong too. She deserved to be considered more seriously than she is.  This novel has stood the test of time far far better than, say, John Updike, whose Rabbit Run I wanted to hurl across the room for its misogyny and self satisfaction.

Meg Wolitzer is funny and insightful when she writes about this particular generation of male writers - the Updike generation.  I laughed out loud on several occasions, reading about "Butternut Peak" writer's summer conference - a take on Bread Loaf  and "all the narcissism and unpleasantness let loose among the scrub pines." Also the untalented but beautiful Merry Cheslin who Joe has an affair with at the conference. Joan Castleman breaks down in front of some of the other wives over this affair and then wonders why the talentless but beautiful Merry Cheslin got to her so much.  She asks herself, "what if talent wasn't simply meaningless. But was actually a liability? Did he like her more because she was a bad writer? Did it make him feel safe sliding along the body of a woman who would never be a great challenge to him? Yes, it did."  I guess this would be the kind of occasion where a "wife" is not what you want - even if you may need one.  You want to be seen as a self-made man - not as one edited and shaped by a wife who knows all your flaws and foibles!

There's so much incidental observation that resonates in this novel: Joan's envy of the woman who lives alone in a manless world and runs a book club;  her take on the would-be biographer of Joe Castleman - Nathaniel Bone, a sort of Rick Moody type whose real subject is "not Joe's short story at all but Nathaniel Bone's intelligence";  about the successful feminist and new kind of woman writer Valerian Qaanaag,  "Better to stay among the dinosaurs like Joe and Lev and the others," Joan Castleman feels ."Better to be miserable and feel cheated than to welcome this new breed that I didn't understand and for whom I had no affection."

And what about how Joan's daughters had their father's love but not his attention - "which was something else entirely"; about their son David and his troubles, and how  this son absorbed on a visceral level all that was wrong in his parents' marriage and was gas-lighted because of it.  So so good.  Written with such a light touch, but oh so deep and insightful.

#megwolitzerwife #editorwife

Thursday, August 22, 2019

bloomland is an extraordinary debut

As a book seller and book reviewer, I'm among the lucky ones who receives piles of galleys for free.  It's almost as if books are breeding in my house. They just keep showing up - through the mail, via publishing reps, from writer friends and so forth.  And while I always intend to read the books I bring home, before I know it, I'm all backed up and don't have time to crack them all. It could be I'm struggling through to the end of something else which has a deadline.  Deadlines are good for motivation but they do sometimes squeeze out other books which look just as promising.

So then along came this novel- sent to me by an independent press - Dzanc  - whose titles have interested me before. I put it in one of the piles and there it sat for a week or so, and then one afternoon, in the middle of reading something else, I picked it up thinking I'd just get a little flavor of it. Then I began to read more deeply and before I knew it, I could not stop.

extraordinary debut novel by John Englehardt
The first thing I noticed was something that, in the hands of a less skilled writer, might  have been contrived.  That is, the author John Englehardt has chosen to write in 2nd person, a tricky voice to handle.  It turns out to have been a brilliant choice. Because the story involves several disaffected people and culminates in a mass shooting, it needs to be handled with care, with an imposed distance but also with absolute truth, if it's going to avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality and sensationalism.  

Englehardt's writing is pitch perfect.  I stopped and marveled at times, and pondered what I was reading,  and as I read some surprising and interesting questions emerged.  Ordinary lives are interrupted by a dramatic, tragic and unnecessary shooting. But what was the journey of those lives before the shooting happened?  How in the wake of a shooting can you get back to the genuine, to the mundane,  because "you're constantly re-learning that to dig up a memory with nostalgia is to erase it."  What happens when a marriage grows stale but you can't get out (and no - it isn't the shooter's life we're talking about here).  What happens to people who have run through their marriage, when rejecting a partner "is like rejecting yourself - that the two of you have gone so far down a road together that no one else could possibly understand who you are."    

I'd only got to page 37 but I was deep in these questions about an ordinary marriage.  Speaker Eddie goes with his wife Casey to a club called the Riot Room where a band called Brutal Push "plays what sounds like a slow motion funeral procession. "   The song ends and Eddie observes, "you try to remember that the reason you came here was to show how solicitous you could be. But you realize what's scary about this place is not that she prefers it to you, but that there's a good reason why she likes it here. ...She has to be bothered by the fact that your fights are like earthworms growing new heads after getting torn apart.  And maybe she's closer to finding out why than you will ever be. .... She is waiting in the wraith-like smoke for a deeper understanding that is separate from you.  She wants to discern the exact reason why sound can carry so much that it becomes deafening, why love can mature into a void."


I hardly put this novel down until I had finished, and when I finished,  I read the final, stunning paragraph several times over.  Then I just sort of sat there, trying to let it sink in and settle.  Bloomland stayed with me for days.  Now I want to read it again.

In this story of a mass shooting at a rural university, Englehardt not only gets into the heads of community members, but into the head of the shooter himself, again via the same masterful use of  2nd person.  He gets behind the trauma of a guy who knows that "if you're going to feel sad or scared you must do it in a secret place that even you cannot enter"   and he gets into a community in mourning, even though it's practically impossible  to  "come together" as a community.  because "it ends up isolating those closest to the tragedy only uniting those on the outside who - for some God forsaken reason - are trying to become part of the club."

At 200 pages, Bloomland isn't long, but it's a profound and deeply rewarding book.  I read it months ago, and held off writing about it until now since I wanted my words to help the book get traction. So here it is, folks. This fantastic book comes out in just a few weeks so get yourself off to a bookstore and pick up a copy!

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

searching for freedom - on reading fear of flying

Would you judge this book by its cover?

When a librarian suggested Fear of Flying by Erica Jong for our Classic Book Discussion group, I was curious to read it again, but also, to be honest,  I was skeptical.  Sure, it sold millions of copies, and was shocking and groundbreaking when it came out in 1973.  But did that make it a classic?   I remembered that Erica Jong used the word cunt a lot in her novel, and admitted to finding it difficult to square her hunger for a male body with feminism.   I also remembered a colleague at the New Yorker, (where I was working when I finally read Fear of Flying in the mid 1980s) saying "Poor Dr. Jong!"  That's because Dr Wing in Fear of Flying was based on Erica Jong's husband.   Do you remember that she coined the term "zipless fuck" which is referenced - surely more for a male audience than for a female one - in the cover picture above? I guess I have thought of Erica Jong as writing for her times.  She says in the novel that we do that to all women writers - we "confine them to the ghetto of popular culture."

But now I've read it again, after many decades, and I didn't remember how good it is!   Could that really have to do with the cover?  Maybe it's because it was such a huge bestseller.  Also the patriarchy spoke up so loudly in its defense that it drowned out female voices I would have liked to hear from more.  Henry Miller just loved Fear of Flying.  As did John Updike.  Having those two behind her, was almost enough to put me off for good.

 But to be fair, Erica Jong had nothing to do with the (admittedly hugely successful) marketing efforts behind this book.  In fact, the book was rebranded after coming out to very little fanfare as literary fiction, with this - for my taste - more interesting cover:

 I've discovered I'm not alone in my perceptions.  I mentioned Fear of Flying to several colleagues at the bookstore - serious readers like me -  who all expressed surprise that I found it to be as much about writing and literature as it is about sex;  more about freedom than sex, per se;  that it's funny, exhilarating, intelligent and insightful and most significantly, stands the test of time.  In Isadora Wing,  women will find a character more easy to identify with than, say, the women in Lisa Taddeo's much touted new book Three Women.*

 The narrator of Fear of Flying, Isadora Wing, is a poet married to psychoanalyst Bennett Wing.  Bennett is a good lover, he has all the mechanics down, but he's totally devoid of emotion.  Isadora feels alone with him. Each orgasm she has with him  "seemed to be made of ice".  Then, at a conference in Vienna which she attends with Bennett, meaning to write an article about it, Isadora falls for Adrian, another psychoanalyst who talks to her, engages her and most importantly, makes her laugh. Even though he can't always get it up, she doesn't care because she's fallen madly in love with him.  Meanwhile, he of course, refuses to say that he loves her.  "How hypocritical to go upstairs with a man you don't want to fuck, leave the one you do sitting there alone, and then, in a state of great excitement fuck the one you don't want to fuck while pretending he's the one you do. That's called fidelity.  That's called civilization and its discontents," Jong writes. 

So Isadora and Adrian drive around Vienna together, getting lost, finding places where they can have sex, laughing at (and with) each other, while Adrian psychoanalyzes her.  He tells her that doctors  like poets, are terrified of death. Doctors hate death, which is why they go into medicine. They also talk about their past relationships. Of one of his lovers Adrian says "she made me feel good - so of course I mistrusted her.  And my wife made me feel guilty so of course I married her.  I was like you.  I didn't trust pleasure or my own impulses.  It frightened the hell out of me to be happy and when I got scared, I got married.  Just like you, love."

Isadora recounts her joyless sexual promiscuity as a student in Italy, and her friendship with another girl there who she needed as a sounding board, in order to enjoy and discuss together their sexual encounters.  She writes about her adolescent fantasies, and her first husband, whose eccentricity and strangeness was precisely what attracted her to him - until he went completely crazy, that is.

 She writes about her early marriage to Bennett, and their move to Heidelberg where he was working as a doctor on the army base, and she was learning to write. She writes about her Jewish background and how  "Gradually I began to realize that none of the subjects I wrote poems about engaged my deepest feelings, that there was a great chasm between what I cared about and what I wrote about.  Why? What was I afraid of? Myself, most of all, it seemed."

She writes about her relationship with her mother and about "the women writers, the women painters - most of them were shy, shrinking, schizoid. Timid in their lives and brave only in their art.  Emily Dickinson, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, Carson McCullers ... Flannery O'Connor raising peacocks and living with her mother. Sylvia Plath sticking her head into an oven of myth. Georgia O'Keeffe alone in the desert, apparently a survivor. What a group!"

She writes about her publication experience.  Once published, "I had to learn to cope with my own fear of success for one thing and that was almost harder to live with than the fear of failure."

Isadora is looking for freedom: Artistic, emotional, sexual and psychological freedom.  She wonders why freedom looks like desperation.  Finally and most poignantly, she writes about becoming strong - and how it drives the men in her life away.

She writes about the hunters and the exhibitionists who she's afraid will feel insulted if she rebuffs them - and the men who look at her as if they know what she wants until "it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps 90 percent of the men who displayed [this attitude]were really concealing impotence."

Finally she gets to the crux of it all - that is, what happens to women who are truly strong and know what they want. "Suddenly I knew what I had done wrong with Adrian - and why he had left me.  I had broken the basic rule.  I had pursued him...  For the first time in my life I live out a fantasy. I pursue a man I madly desire, and what happens? He goes limp as a waterlogged noodle and refuses me.  ...They wanted their women wanton. They wanted their women wild.  Now women were finally learning to be wanton and wild and what happened? The men wilted!"

I wish this didn't ring true.  But it does.  Never mind trying to square your need for a male body with your feminism.  Try squaring how strong and fulfilled you feel as a woman with correlative male rejection.   In the end, Isadora finds herself alone, and when she is alone, I felt like I was her.  Yes, she winds up going to Bennett's hotel room and running herself a bath in his absence.  You wonder if she'll stay with him or if she'll leave for good.  But it's Isadora alone that you find yourself wanting to be.  She's intelligent and funny, real and brave and even after decades, she's super empowering.

Getting back to  Erica Jong's liberal use of the word cunt.  Quite independently from reading this book - at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago, two friends  were talking about the words cunt and pussy.  One said that for women of her generation (women of Erica Jong's generation, in fact) the word pussy made her uncomfortable.  Cunt, she said, was fine - because it was strong.  Maybe I feel differently. I think I hold the vagina in more esteem than the word cunt suggests.  But there again, perhaps being a free and fully realized woman isn't for pussies at all.  Maybe it's actually for cunts.

* Could be generational, of course, but I read Three Women at the suggestion of a fellow (much younger) bookseller. And felt  in reading it, like I came from another planet.  My  young colleague evidently devoured the book and zipped right through it.  But I found it mildly depressing.  What these women want from intimacy seems so different from what I want.  And what I want always includes a mental, if not intellectual connection, in addition of course, to a sexual/emotional connection. 

Monday, July 29, 2019

long answers need long time in richard powers' overstory

Towards the end of The Overstory, Neelay Mehta, who we follow from misfit childhood into successful video game designer adulthood, asks his staff, "What do all good stories do? They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren't."

The Overstory will do that to you.  It isn't your usual linear narrative. There isn't a simple plot.  But you will be different when you finish. Your sense of time will change. You'll see that  the people most adjusted to societal norms are also less evolved, if not delusional.  In the words of  Patricia Westerford, a scientist and arborist in the novel, "other creatures, bigger, slower, older, more durable - call the shots,  make the weather, feed creation and create the air."  When you finish reading this book, you'll never see trees in the same way again.

But it isn't easy going.  You won't zip through it.  Reading an epic takes commitment. Several people told me they got bogged down in the middle, as did I. There are so many characters and narrative threads which are hard to keep straight.  But over 500 pages they weave together, branch out and intersect.  They work like the underground root system of the trees which are central to the story. "Forests mend and shape themselves through subterranean synapses," Powers writes. "And in shaping themselves, they shape too, the tens of thousands of other linked creatures that form it from within. Maybe it's useful to think of forests as enormous spreading branching underground supertrees."

 The characters are quirky and unique.  They suffer near death and physical handicap: infertility, deafness, electrocution, bombing, stroke.  Some of them are on the spectrum.  But because of this they are  alert to a different sense of time, and more in tune to nature.

The book opens with the Hoel family who over several generations photograph a Chestnut tree on their farm.  Put all together the hundreds of pictures reveal the slow, purposeful growth of the tree and its long dignified story.   Then there's Olivia Vandergriff, who is promiscuous and superficial until she is electrocuted by a lamp in her bedroom.  She comes out of this near death experience able to hear voices - her spirit guides.  She becomes a leader in an important environmental movement.

We learn how trees communicate with each other. We learn with scientist Patricia Westerford, who is almost deaf, how to listen to trees.  Trees send warning to each other which human beings can't hear.  "Harm was never imminent enough.  Imminent at the speed of people is too late."

All the characters - Nick, Mimi, Neelay, Patricia, Olivia, Douglas and others meet up as activists in the Pacific Northwest, to protest deforestation. Together with Nick Hoel,  Olivia lives for a year on a platform in a giant redwood to stop the loggers from bringing it down.  It's transporting. For me, this is the heart and soul of the book.

But do the activists succeed in protecting the trees?  You already know the answer. "People have no idea what time is," says Nick. "They think it's a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead.  They can't see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died."  Ultimately the activists scatter.

"Long answers need long time," Powers writes. "And long time is exactly what's vanishing."  The novel is a serious warning.  This book is not optimistic.  It's epic and prophetic.

But when we've thoroughly ruined the planet for ourselves and human beings can no longer survive here,  the trees will come back.  They will outlast and survive us because they are greater than we are.

#theoverstory #environmentalwarning #treesoverstory

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

he was killed for writing this - and then it caused a revolution VIDEO

LISTEN TO MY VIDEO.  It's just that I can't be bothered to spell it out.  I've been so swamped lately with book intros and reviews, including ones I don't much like or care to write up here, that I decided to quickly record this video instead.  Because of all the books I've read this past month Noli Me Tangere is an absolute stand out. It was recommended by one of my bookseller colleagues at Politics and Prose as a classic in the Philippines - and reminds me of Voltaire's Candide.  Have a listen.  Pick up a copy and think of reading it with your own book club.

 #joserizal #nolimetangere