Sunday, August 21, 2005

Today is...

the third anniversary of my father's death. We took my mom shopping, to the movies, and to dinner -- to distract us all. I miss him so much still, though I'm thankful for the time we had together.

My own coping mechanism: while my aunt and mother were watching a movie, I was browsing at Borders. Found some good magazines and books to use with my students.

Still reading The Hamilton Case -- I find it interesting how Maud, the mother of the erstwhile main character, uses writing to cope with her solitude and the creeping infirmities of old age. She writes compulsively -- cheery, fictional letters to her old acquaintances, lists cataloging the flora and fauna of her childhood home (where her bitter son has exiled her), and journal entries that chronicle her mental, emotional, and physical decline.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Just saw a promo for next Friday's 20/20 -- it's about Dracula. I wonder if they'll cover Kostova's novel. I would think that's the hook right now, just like The Da Vinci Code prompted all those programs about Mary Magdalene and the meaning of the Grail legend...

I'm back!

Hi, gang! The summer vacation was wonderful, very restorative. The semester is well underway, so I have the time, energy and inclination to return to the blogosphere.

Currently reading: The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser. I'm halfway through. I'm enjoying it though it's not what I expected. I don't know why (vague recollections of reviews?), but I thought it would be a thriller. It isn't. In fact, I find it hard to categorize... will mull it over as I finish it & let you know what I come up with.

So, what have you guys been up to? I'll be doing the rounds to get into the flow again.

Missed you!

Monday, July 11, 2005

Off on vacation

I'll be officially away until early August, as I'm going on vacation with my family to the Northwest. I plan to start regularly blogging again when I return, so I hope to see you all back here. Thank you for sticking with me through this tough time, and once again, I really do appreciate all the messages of support (even if I didn't respond to you at the time).

Here's a little food for thought while I'm away:check out this essay by a stroke survivor about the impact his memoir still has a decade later.

So, friends, please live well and enjoy every moment. I intend to do the same!

Monday, June 27, 2005

Just read: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova's first novel, The Historian, though, frankly, I fail to see why she got a 2 million dollar advance. BTW, wouldn't such a large advance be the death of any first-time author's promising career? Who can sell enough to pay out that advance?

It took me about a week to finish this novel. I'm not sure if that's due to its heft or to my own lack of concentration. It's an interesting approach to the Dracula story, and I'm a sucker for books with scholars as protagonists... and scholarly work at the center of the story.

As you can probably tell, I'm still not to my usual speed blogging- or reading-wise. Hopefully will continue getting better...

Monday, June 20, 2005

Hanging in there

I'm taking care of myself, riding out the storm of negative thoughts and listlessness... I have been reading a little, very slowly.

I enjoyed reading the first Michael Ohayon Mystery by Batya Gur, The Saturday Morning Murder: A Psychoanalytic Case. It's slow going at first, but well-worth it. Plus it's so nice to have a detective that doesn't know everything... I've started the second one, Literary Murder: A Critical Case, but I'm only midway through the first chapter. I learned about Batya Gur when she died recently and many bloggers praised her work, so I felt compelled to track down her five mysteries.

I've read a few Ellora's Cave erotic romances, which I've mostly enjoyed. I do hate one Ellora's Cave author with a passion: S.L. Carpenter. Bad writing, bad plotting, bad sex... Avoid at all costs. BTW, I was surprised to see an Ellora's Cave ad in the NYT Book Review a few weeks ago...

I also read Renegade by Diana Palmer. She's quite a prolific romance writer, known for her sexually innocent/inexperienced/feraful heroines and strong, conflicted heroes. This one fits her pattern, but it's one of her best in a long time.

And I finally read MJ Rose's The Halo Effect, which I quite enjoyed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Currently hibernating

Yes, I know it's almost summer, but I've been in hibernation lately. A recurrence of depression, mostly... Since I was 21 I've been battling chronic major depression, and it's been paying me a little visit lately. Depression for me is not at all about sadness; it's all about (corrossive, vitriolic) negative thoughts, lack of will and motivation, and scattered concentration. Not conducive to blogging, or indeed, much of anything, except brooding. I take my antidepressants daily, exercise regularly, and just soldier on; I did spend 10 years in therapy, including a month-long stint in a psych ward, so I've learned to manage it, live through it. It doesn't really make it any easier to slog through, though.

Thanks to everyone that has sent me messages and good wishes -- your concern is much appreciated!

I'm sure the mood will upswing soon, and I'll be back to reading and blogging with passion again.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Does anyone else...

... think it's in really bad taste for GM to announce that it will reduce its domestic workforce by 22% and premiere a new campaign offering their cars at the employee discount -- all in the same week? If the people in the new commercials are actual GM employees, I hope they're not going to be on the chopping block. Now THAT would be in bad, bad taste! (And by the way, can you believe the GM head honcho's name is Mr. Wagoner?)

Monday, June 06, 2005

Just read: Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

I just finished a wonderful mystery set in Victorian England. In Some Danger Involved, first-time author Will Thomas introduces an eccentric and utterly compelling detective duo. Cyrus Barker is a prosperous private enquiry agent with a mastery of arcane martial arts, a love of all things Oriental, and a gift for languages. He needs a new assistant, since his last one was found floating in the Thames with a bullet hole between his eyes. Thomas Llewelyn, a widowed, penniless, former Oxford student who just got out of prison, answers Barker's ad, "some danger involved in the performance of duties" notwithstanding. After putting Thomas through a rather unusual interview, Barker hires him, providing food, shelter, reading material, and a complete new wardrobe. And when a young Jewish scholar is found crucified in the middle of the Jewish Ghetto's busiest street, Barker and Thomas tackle their first case together... and attempt to find a murderer while averting a pogrom against London's Jewish population.

To Kingdom Come, the second installment of the Barker/Llewelyn series has just been published in hardcover.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Today in my family's history

Today is my parents' anniversary. Had my father lived, he and my mom would be celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary today. Theirs was quite a love story, which makes me wonder why I don't believe in true love myself...

My parents met forty-five years ago this summer, when my mom was just a fifteen year-old high school girl away from home from the first time. She was attending a summer camp for gifted students sponsored by the state university; he was a seventeen-year old college student who drank too much and partied too hard with his frat buddies. Still, somethiing must have clicked between my shy mom and my outgoing dad, because they became inseparable that summer. It must have helped that she was staying at his house (his family ran a guest house)...

They married four years later, the day after my mom graduated from college. Four years after that they had me...

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Just seen: Empire Falls

I just spent the afternoon watching the Empire Falls miniseries on HBO. It's based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Richard Russo, who also wrote the screenplay. I admit I have not gotten around to reading the book yet (which I always try to do before I see an adaptation), but I really enjoyed this movie. I wonder how it stacks up to the original, though.

Some parts of the film seemed a little forced; the foreshadowing too obvious. For example: the weird outcast kid is seen arriving home and petting a scrawny dog. The next shot is of his dark house and we can hear the screech of a dog in pain. Now I ask you: what do you think is going to happen with that kid? Haven't we all heard ad nauseam about how hurting animals is a trait of serial killers? And what about all the closeups of the exacto knife in the girl's backpack -- you'd have to be blind and stupid not to figure out something will happen with that knife...

Still, it's a good movie. I'd recommend it. Now, to find that book... I'm sure it's somewhere in the stacks in my room...

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Update

Sunday's concert was terrific! Antonio Orozco is a wonderful singer/songwriter from Spain, who mixes traditional Spanish rhythms with rock and pop sounds. It was his first solo concert outside Spain, and he performed in front of an appreciative audience -- we liked him even better for performing while injured: during the third song he apparently twisted his ankle and was hobbling around for the next hour and a half. As you can see, he's also a good-looking guy, even though he dresses like a homeless person (really).

After the concert we went to check out my Aunt's new digs -- on Friday she bought a new beachfront apartment just a couple of blocks from ours. Shopping for the new apartment has consumed a lot of my time lately; she likes having company while choosing furnishings and accessories.

More shopping yesterday, and then we went to the movies -- I confess: we saw Monster-in-Law... it was better than I expected (admittedly, I didn't expect much...)... To complete the mindless entertainment double-header, we saw the Miss Universe Pageant. Hey, I can claim both the movie and the pageant were watched for patriotic reasons -- JLo is Puerto Rican (from the Bronx, but still...) and we were rooting for the Puerto Rican contestant, who was apparently a front runner. And indeed she was -- she came in first runner-up. Plus, my extended family got together for pizza and put-downs, which is always fun.

Not so fun -- towards the end of the pageant, we blew a fuse. Literally. Half the apartment went dark. Worse still: the air conditioning was out. Horror! My bedroom also lost power; that's where my computer is, so no posting for me then either. And no power today either, since the electricians spent quite a few hours rewiring and installing new fuses. But everything's back to normal now, fortunately!

Not much reading going on. I've been in a funk the last few days...

Sunday, May 29, 2005

I've been away...

...from home and computer a little too much lately, which is why I haven't posted in a few days. I'm off to a concert this afternoon, but tonight I'll update you on what's new in this little corner of the blogosphere.

Does absence really make the heart grow fonder? Or is it just a stale cliche? A justification for neglect?

I really have missed you...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Teasers

Still wading through tons of student papers, so here's a preview of upcoming book reviews, just to whet your appetites (I told you I've been a busy reader!):

Fiction
The Bitch Posse (also published as The Bitch Goddess Notebook in England) by Martha O'Connor -- Highly recommended. This is compelling, unflinchingly honest storytelling about what it means to live haunted by memories you can't stomach but can't quite repress. It's about the darkness within all of us, which so often seeps out through senseless, self-destructive acts. It's a haunting novel, perfect for readers who appreciate Joyce Carol Oates. Read an excerpt here -- it's representative of both style and subject matter. Another good thing: the blurbs are actually accurate!

Home Land by Sam Lipsyte -- I picked this up because it was recommended over at The Elegant Variation. I liked it, but I wasn't as enthused as TEV (overly high expectations, perhaps?). Lipsyte subverts the high-school alumni update to create a funny, absurd tale that kept me turning the pages.

A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin -- Cullin gives us a nanogenarian Sherlock Holmes who is still solving mysteries, though in a smaller, more intimate scale. This Holmes is perplexed by the vagaries of his aging intellect, but he is still a force to be reckoned with. The novel intertwines Holmes own written account of a case that still haunts him (not for its complexity, but for its protagonist), with flashbacks to a recent trip to Japan where his host presents him with a mystery, and the present, where he is trying to figure out his life and cope with some traumatic events (that I won't spoil by revealing).

Mystery
Eight of Swords by David Skibbins. This is the first in a planned series of mysteries featuring Warren Ritter, a tarot-reading fugitive who juggles several different identities and who always has an escape plan in place, ever since his 'death' thirty years ago. In this installment, one of Warren's tarot clients is abducted; another is murdered; his sister recognizes him on the street; and he starts romancing a wheelchair-bound ex-Army computer whiz/one-woman army... Entertaining, to say the least.

Memoir
Nervous System, or Losing my Mind in Literature by Jan Lars Jensen -- In this memoir Jensen chronicles how he quite literally went insane during the final editing of his first novel (though that turned out not to be the cause, as good a hook as that is). Jensen became convinced the publication of his novel would set in motion a series of events that would end with the total destruction of the world through nuclear holocaust. Honestly -- he really thought this, which is why he couldn't sleep, which in turn resulted in his hospitalization (twice) in a psychiatric hospital. The memoir is interesting, but repetitive -- Jensen dwells too much on his delusions and paranoia, and too little on everything else in his life.

Young Adult
Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters -- Sweet novel about teenagers falling in love and lust. The twist -- both are girls, and one hadn't realized she was even a lesbian.

Luna, also by Julie Anne Peters -- This is Peters' most recent novel, about a transgendered teen. I found this novel less satisfying than Keeping You a Secret, perhaps because the novel is told from the point of view of the transgendered teen's younger sister, and Peters uses flashbacks to fill out the story (sometimes rather clumsily introduced by a sudden flash of memory...). Still, it's an interesting story; I might even assign it to my students -- they thoroughly enjoyed Normal, Amy Bloom's collection of essays on transgendered, cross-dressing, and intersexed individuals.

Miscellaneous
The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life by Steve Leven -- short, entertaining book about how to get more from your reading time. Leven (of Levenger catalog fame) advocates keeping a List of Candidates (books you might like to read), a Library of Candidates, a Living Library (of books already read), and an annotated book biography (the rather awkardly titled Bookography) of books read...

Monday, May 23, 2005

When will this semester be over?

The semester is dragging to a close, a couple of weeks later than usual, due to the students' enthusiastic but ultimately futile attempt to stop a tuition increase (the first in over a decade). And I'm just so tired...

Plus, how many times can you keep a straight face when a student claims his disk just won't open, every printer at the university is out of ink, paper, toner... or perhaps a relative has died --or been seriously injured... One of my colleagues had a student who very calmly informed her that her baby daughter had just died (it turned out her 18-month-old niece was sick, but not dying); another had a student hand in a portfolio with a forged paper -- yes, forged. It's apparently no longer enough just to plagiarize; the girl had copied the professor's handwriting to write comments on a 'draft' -- and she even signed the paper using the professor's initials. Of course, the artful student didn't know that my colleague keeps track of the drafts she corrects, so... busted!

[Have been reading a lot -- will post reviews and comments ASAP (as soon as I dig myself out from under the piles of student quizzes, papers, tests...)]

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Recently Read: I'm Not the New Me by Wendy McClure

A few weeks ago I read blogger Wendy McClure's new memoir, I'm Not the New Me. It fell through the cracks of my blogging life, maybe because I didn't find it too memorable. I guess I expected more from this book, given Wendy McClure's blogging fame -- her blog is Pound at poundy.com (not much going on there right now, as McClure is busy promoting the new book).

I'm Not the New Me is strongest when McClure is focusing squarely on her life -- her friends, her family, her would-be suitors. However, perhaps to try to tie it in to her popular blog (which she started to chronicle her diet and weight loss), the book is billed as being about weight and related self-esteem issues. That is grossly misleading, and also, it ignores the real strengths of McClure's memoir -- namely, her distinctive voice when describing the details of her life (beyond the body thing, which fortunately takes up little textual space). The weakest parts, for me, were the ones about fatness, particularly her discourses on fat girls in general (the prologue 'how to tell a fat girl story' and the chapter titled 'invisible jet' are particularly unfortunate examples, which would have been best sacrificed for the greater good of the book). I also found the reprints of the disgusting 70s Weight Watchers recipe cards superfluous -- and McClure's commentary not particularly funny or enlightening (yes, I know, the cards also tie into her blogging fame...).

My recommendation: skim it (and definitely skip the 'fat girl' parts). I am curious, though, about what Wendy McClure will publish next -- I think that she will blossom as a writer (and as a memoirist) when she is no longer tied to the premise of her blog as the justification for her publishing contract. I definitely look forward to that!

For more information:

  • Website for I'm Not the New Me - it includes lots of blurbs with opinions that are a lot more enthusiastic than mine...

  • Wendy McClure's blog, Pound.

  • Interview with Wendy McClure at zulkey.com

  • Brief bio from the Penguin USA site.

  • Boston Globe article, "From blog to book, chasing the thin line"

  • Q: For a book ostensibly about weight loss, you don't talk about food much. Why not?

    A: I don't know. I think there's a lot of [writing] about weight where the person has a food addiction. I don't. As far as obsessing, I can't say I really do it. I think it's like this for a lot of people. If people obsess about food that way, it would just be so obvious. I tried to reflect that a little bit. I've resented TV shows that have [overweight people] who have candy bars in their pockets.
    .....
    Q: Although the book claims to be a memoir about weight loss, ''I'm Not the New Me" seems to have a different theme altogether at its core. It could be described as the tension between being out there on the web, living in cyberspace, and the struggle to stay in everyday reality, to stay in the moment.

    A: Definitely. . . . I wanted to do something with that. So much about putting oneself online is about negotiating how you appear. If you go to . . . any blog by women in high school and college, if you look at the pictures, the pictures are taken from above to minimize their chin, and some web logs have a small picture on line.

  • If you must, go here to view Wendy McClure's collection of Weight Watchers recipe cards.

Check out these Book Sense Paperback Picks

for Summer 2005.

1. GOOD GRIEF, by Lolly Winston (Warner, $12.95, 0446694843) "While grief is not inherently amusing at all, Lolly Winston has found the perfect tone in her breezy and humorous description of Sophie Stanton's struggles (and failure) to be a 'good' widow at age 36. The novel never makes light of Sophie's sadness, but it does deftly show the funny side underneath." --Liz Murphy, Learned Owl Book Shop, Hudson, OH [This novel is on my TBR mountain...]

2. MULTIPLE CHOICE, by Claire Cook (NAL, $14, 0451214889) "Claire Cook once again has proven that she can write a touching, witty, and sassy novel about families. This mother/daughter novel is a laugh-out-loud fun ride that every mother and daughter can relate to." --Karin Beyer, Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, MI

3. TRUTH & BEAUTY: A Friendship, by Ann Patchett (HarperPerennial, $13.95, 0060572159) "Patchett has written a memoir of her longtime friendship with Lucy Grealy, poet and author. By turns hilarious and tragic, Patchett remains a steadfast friend to the eccentric, charismatic, and self-destructive Lucy. She is the candle that burns too brightly but illuminates the world around her, and Patchett reflects their relationship brilliantly." --Nan Hadden, Books, Etc., Portland, ME [Here's what I had to say about it!]

4. SOME DANGER INVOLVED: A Novel, by Will Thomas (Touchstone, $9.95, 0743256190) "This blend of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, set in Victorian England, features descriptions so compelling I wanted to gulp it down in one sitting. My favorite read in the detective genre for the season." --Jim McKee, Lee Booksellers, Lincoln, NE

5. SHADOW DIVERS: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II, by Robert Kurson (Random House Trade, $14.95, 0375760989) "This is a fascinating, true story of the deep-sea divers who discovered a German WW II U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. The book is written like a novel, carrying the reader along as the mystery is uncovered." --Connie Geverink, Chesterfield Books, Chesterfield, MI [Also on my reading agenda...]

6. THE SUMMER GUEST, by Justin Cronin (Delta, $13, 0385335822) "I am fired up about The Summer Guest. This story of a dying man's last wish was a wonderful read with authentically real and admirable characters, and I'll be hand selling it like crazy." --Wendy Morton Hudson, Nantucket Bookworks, Nantucket, MA

7. CARPE DEMON: Adventures of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom, by Julie Kenner (Berkley, $12.95, 0425202526) "Kenner's Carpe Demon is best described as Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Desperate Housewives, with all the fun and thrills of both. A demon slayer turned suburban housewife, raising a teenager and toddler, is forced to come out of retirement when her family is threatened. What follows is full of laughs and edge-of-the-seat excitement." --Rita Moran, Apple Valley Books, Winthrop, ME Available in July.

8. BITTER FRUIT, by Achmat Dangor (Grove/Black Cat, $13, 0802170064) "A chance encounter with the policeman who raped his wife during South Africa's apartheid era forces a Johannesburg man and his family to confront the pain of their past. Their individual impressions, filtered through Dangor's rich imagination, create a devastating portrait of how history haunts and transforms. Dark and deep, yet full of humor, sensuality, and the desire for life's small, bitter pleasures." --Jamie Kornegay, Square Books, Oxford, MS

9. CALL IT A GIFT, by Valerie Hobbs (University of Nevada Press, $18, 0874176123) "Talented young adult author Hobbs' first adult novel explores an unlikely and, yet, very possible late-in-life romance. Jeronimo Smith is annoyed to discover that a copy of the poems of William Butler Yeats is not on the library shelf. And, even more annoying, the person ahead of him at the checkout desk has it in her hands. A hopeful book for us aging pre-Baby Boomers." --Jody Fickes Shapiro, Adventures for Kids, Ventura, CA

10. OFF MAIN STREET: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth's Gator: Essays, by Michael Perry (HarperPerennial, $13.95, 0060755504) "Eagerly awaited by us fans of Population: 485, Perry's latest delivers more news from New Auburn, Wisconsin. Perry reviews his eclectic experiences with a Midwestern sensibility that knows there is bound to be something profound mixed up in the middle of goofiness, and vice versa." --Joyce Gray, Mitchell Books, Fort Wayne, IN

See the complete list of recommendations here.

Just read: Raising Hope by Katie Willard

I just read a truly enjoyable novel about family and friendship, Raising Hope by first-time author Katie Willard.

The premise: Bobby Teller's wife dies in childbirth and he leaves his one-week-old daughter in the care of his sister Ruth and his former lover Sara Lynn. Ruth, tough-talking and scrappy, must learn to get along with wealthy, well-educated, well-mannered Sara Lynn, her childhood nemesis, for the sake of little Hope. So Ruth and Hope move into the Hoffman mansion with Sara Lynn and her widowed mother, Aimee, and become a happy, surprisingly functional family.

Raising Hope is (mostly) set during Hope's twelfth year of life, when Hope is impatiently waiting for her breasts and her period to make an appearance, nurturing a secret crush on her tennis instructor, and wondering where her long-gone father is. The novel is told from the perspectives of the four women in the Hoffman/Teller household: Hope, Sara Lynn, Ruth, and Aimee all get chapters of their own, so we readers get the pleasure of exploring the world and their relationships through their four very different perspectives.

Raising Hope is very definitely geared towards women (I guess "women's fiction" would be an accurate generic label) -- it's a novel that celebrates the bonds between women, be they biological or social, based on family ties or friendship. It is an aptly titled novel, not only because the character of Hope is the unifying force in the narrative, but also because the novel is hopeful about life, love, and relationships. Raising Hope shows us how life hurts, but also how it sparkles, amazes, dazzles. Most definitely recommended.

[I also hope Katie Willard writes a sequel -- I really want to know what else life holds for these four women!]

For more information:

  • Visit Katie Willard's website, and read an interesting Q&A:

The characters in RAISING HOPE meet life head on and grow into people fuller and stronger than they ever imagined they could be. I think if we are open to life, we have so much potential to grow into and beyond our best selves.
.....
Q: The family of Hope, Sara Lynn, Ruth and Mamie is all female. The men in your book are either absent, dead, or, like the two boyfriends, Sam and Jack, playing minor roles. That's interesting and probably significant. What was your idea behind taking men out of the picture, so to speak?

A: As a feminist, I consciously celebrate women. I love women: we are mysterious and complicated in our bodies and our souls. Men are fine (especially my husband, who is very, very fine), but I'm just not as interested in what makes them tick. I also think men have plenty of opportunities to voice who they are; my book unapologetically is not one of them.
.....
RAISING HOPE is a gentle book, and, yes, it does reflect my sensibilities. There isn't anything "offensive" or "shocking" in it because there wasn't a need for that kind of material in this particular story. That's not to say that shocking material won't show up in another book, but I'd bet against it. I write stories I want to read, and I just don't enjoy reading about excessive violence or meanness. Writing a novel is a huge commitment of time and energy, and I want to spend my resources on characters and situations that touch my emotions but ultimately make me happy. There's enough ugliness in this world that I don't feel the need to add to it.

I wrote Raising Hope because it was a way for me to talk about the complexity, pain, and deep, deep love between mothers and daughters. Writing a novel had been my lifelong crazy dream, an idea I'd pooh-poohed as a silly fantasy until I became a mother, grew into being a woman, and learned a thing or two about what really matters. It took motherhood to show me that life is short and precious and I'd better start living it. It took motherhood to show me that I could fail and fail and fail and learn from those failures to make something worthwhile. It took motherhood to show me that being fully present in my life was the biggest gift I could give my daughter, myself, and my writing. Most of all, it took motherhood to show me that the wildest, most wonderful dreams do come true. I should know. They come true for me every day when I look into the sparkly eyes of a little girl with wiggly front teeth.

  • Hometown newspaper coverage: "Hopes are High for First Novel":
    "I have always loved fiction and I have written on and off through my life just for fun, and just for me," said Willard, who remembers writing short stories and poems from the time she learned to read at the age of four.

    But when her daughter was about to enter kindergarten in the fall of 2002, a bittersweet time of letting go, Willard, 37, felt compelled to put her hopes for her child, and the life lessons she wanted to pass on, into a written legacy.

    "I wanted to tell her about grabbing life with both hands and going forward, and that the curveballs life throws you can lead to places you never expected," said Willard whose own life has taken some unexpected twists.

    Willard's words of wisdom were woven into a novel, "Raising Hope," written for Zoe, now 8. Willard's debut novel is about the love between three generations of mothers and daughters, and how self-fulfillment often comes during life's detours.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The New Yorker weighs in on the latest/last Star Wars episode

Drop by Jenny Davidson's Light Reading to read a really funny excerpt from Anthony Lane's review of Revenge of the Sith. Warning: You might not find it so funny if you take your Star Wars seriously. (I found it hilarious!)

The benefits of insomnia

I couldn't sleep on Wednesday night, so I spent the night reading (always a good thing in this corner of the blogosphere). The good news: I read the Cassandra James mysteries (only two so far) by Christine Poulson. The bad news: after a night of no sleep and then teaching five courses and driving two hours, I collapsed when I arrived home last night, so no blogging for me on Thursday night...

But I'm back now, well-rested and ready to blog!

The first Cassandra James mystery, Murder is Academic (original UK title Dead Letters -- why can't they keep original titles in the US? It just makes things confusing for readers...) introduces our non-sleuthing academic, Dr. Cassandra James, a lecturer on nineteenth-century literature at the English Department of the fictional St. Ethelreda's College in Cambridge, England. The book opens with Cassandra's discovery of the body of her boss floating in a pool (you can read an excerpt here). Was Margaret's death a suicide? An accident? Murder? No one is sure, but Cassandra needs to get her act together, because she has been put in charge of St. Ethelreda's struggling English Department. If Cassandra cannot cajole/threaten/push and otherwise prod her colleagues to produce publishable work by the end of the year, the department will cease to exist and Cassandra and her colleagues will be out on the street. When Margaret's husband names Cassandra the literary executrix of the dead woman's estate, Cassandra finds --and destroys-- shocking letters that reveal Margaret's life is not what it seemed... and which link her to another mysterious death involving the college. As Cassandra deals with an excentric colleague who claims Conan Doyle is coauthoring his long-overdue academic treatise, a supportive boyfriend who is pushing for more, and a student who has plagiarized Cassandra's own work, she must also ponder what to reveal about Margaret's secret life and to whom...

The second Cassandra James mystery, Stage Fright, finds Dr. James on maternity leave and attending rehearsals for a play based on a nineteenth-century novel she adapted for the stage. Her neighbors, Melissa and Kevin, are also involved in the production of the play; Melissa, a well-known actress, is the star, and husband Kevin, a former tv star, is the director. But when Melissa disappears just a few days before opening night --leaving her six-month old daughter home alone-- Cassandra knows something must be very wrong. Cassandra struggles to take care of Melissa's baby while juggling her own daughter (who has the temperament of a diva), fielding calls from her boyfriend Stephen, a lawyer who is away on business in California, and seeing her first husband for the first time in fourteen years...

Poulson writes engaging academic mysteries that make for enjoyable light reading. These books cover no new ground, either in style or content, but they are full of interesting, quirky characters who provide wonderful company to wile away a few pleasant hours.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Just Read: Kate Atkinson's Case Histories

I already had Case Histories, Kate Atkinson's fourth novel, on my To Be Read pile(s), but I admit that when the LBC chose it as the first Read This! pick, I bumped it up and started reading.

[BTW, am I the only one who hates this cover?]

I found the first three chapters --the case histories themselves-- tough going. The writing didn't engage me and reading three tragic episodes back-to-back was a little wearying. I finally became a little more engaged with the novel with the appearance of the PI whose cases these would become. Jackson Brodie seemed to me a more interesting and engaging character than all the dysfunctional, unhappy people in the case histories. Not that Jackson isn't dysfunctional and unhappy -- he is, but he's witty about it. This guy has a sense of humor about his misery, while the subjects of the case histories just seem so dreadfully earnest in their suffering. I guess I can safely say that Atkinson's decision to organize her novel around the three "case histories" felt contrived to me and not entirely successful. I think the novel would have been better and stronger had the material been organized differently (perhaps losing the "case histories" as separate entities and reworking them more smoothly into the narrative).

I also found Atkinson's narrative coy -- she flashes her hand but then holds it back, refusing to reveal information her characters already know. For example, when Jackson uncovers the key piece of information regarding the Laura Wyre case, he calls his client (her long-grieving father) and tells him he'll mail him a postcard with the information. What? Is that believable? Oh yes, I spend ten years obsessing about my daughter's case and when the PI I finally hired to look into it calls and says he's solved it, I just say okay, don't need to know, I'll wait to get that postcard... Please. And that little unbelievable exchange comes a little after Atkinson interrupts the narrative when the woman Jackson is interviewing says Oh I know who the killer is... Well, we don't. Could you tell us? Show us? Nope -- Jackson apparently has better things to do, and so does Atkinson. We must wait until they feel like showing us... That's a little too coy for my taste.

Other things also annoyed me:

  • The little beggar girl that just kept popping up. I just wanted to shout to the characters -- take a look at her! Isn't it obvious she'll turn out to be important! And of course, she is...
  • The Carolyn character. Obviously, since she was given her own chapters, she must be important to the case histories. And indeed she is... It just takes a while to become apparent (frankly, too long).
  • Why does Jackson put up with the secretary from hell? Does she have something on him we don't know about? Otherwise, it makes no sense to me that Jackson would employ this dour, nasty woman with no apparent redeeming qualities.
I did like that the resolution of the cases was surprising (a little contrived and manipulative, perhaps, but still interesting). I was also thankful that towards the end of the novel the atmosphere of utter, pervasive failure and despair surrounding all the characters lifted a little. There are no happy endings, just hopeful endings. And that's good enough for me.

For more information:

As for me, well I found Case Histories to be hard going. For one thing you have to go 60 pages before you get anything that might reasonably be called a scene (in dramatic terms) in which two or more actors engage in a dialogue. And to my mind that ain't the best way to proceed. So I began to skip. Fast. Which is not, of course, the ideal way to read a novel. You should read every word, but I'm afraid I am very old-fashioned about these things and I expect the writer to give me some help. Reading a novel is suppose to be fun, at least in my estimation; it's supposed to be an enjoyable, interesting, satisfying experience; it's not supposed to be a whole lot of hard, tedious work.

Anyway, I did stick with the book, after a fashion, and after a couple of hundred pages or so I began to see a little more virtue in it. And by the end I could also see, very clearly, that if the material had been organised differently, Case Histories could have been an impressive novel indeed. But it would have been an impressive crime novel. And that, I suspect, is something that Kate Atkinson and her publisher would rather die than admit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

On Bride & Prejudice, the movie

This weekend I saw Bride & Prejudice, the Bollywood-and-Austen-inspired new movie by the director of Bend It Like Beckam. It's light and cheery and full of gorgeous sounds and colors, exactly what I needed after a week of gray, rainy days (it hasn't been paradise in the tropics lately!). While this is not a cerebral interpretation, it is a lot of fun -- a celebration of over-the-top Bollywood song-and-dance numbers infused with the spirit of Jane Austen. And most of the actors and actresses in the movie are uncommonly beautiful, so that it seems quite fitting that they spend a lot of time prancing around decked out in colorful clothing...

The beautiful Aishwarya Rai, former Miss India and current Bollywood star, plays Lalita, a 21st century Indian Elizabeth Bennet, who is destined to be momentarily charmed by the wicked Wickham (here a nomadic backpacker), ogled by Mr. Kholi (Austen's Mr. Collins has been turned into an ingratiating accountant who emigrated to California and has returned --green card in hand-- to shop for a proper Indian wife), and ultimately landed by Darcy, a white-bread (and bred) American hotelier.

Of course we all know what happens, but it's so much fun to watch anyway. And how cool is it to see Lalita and her Mr. Darcy riding an elephant that is sporting a "Just Married" sign with its bejewelled finery?

For more information:

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

On Lynn Viehl's Darkyn Series

Recently I read If Angels Burn, the first in a new series of novels by Lynn Viehl (of Paperback Writer fame). Billed by publisher Signet Eclipse as "paranormal romance", If Angels Burn is described by its author as also containing "strong elements of horror, suspense, fantasy and science fiction." The fact is that the novel works better within any of those other genres than as a romance.

That is my main problem with this novel: expectations created and left unfulfilled.

Not only is If Angels Burn marketed as "paranormal romance" but a prominent blurb on the cover proclaims this novel "[e]rotic, darker than sin, and better than good chocolate." It is none of those things. Of course I know blurbs exaggerate, but still, as a reader I'm annoyed (angry, really) at being deliberately misled.

I have read a lot of romance, and a fair amount of paranormal romance (including all of Christine Feehan's Carpathian romances, which are a favorite of mine), and trust me, If Angels Burn is NOT romance. In a good romance there are two basic genre rules that cannot be bent: 1) the narrative has to focus on the relationship between the hero and the heroine; and 2) there has to be a happy ending, which includes the promise of the hero and heroine together and happy. If Angels Burn skirts both these rules -- the story contains too many secondary characters and subplots; the supposed hero and heroine occupy but a small part of the narrative; there is very little sex, and what there is of it cannot really be called erotic; the end of the novel is merely a setup for the continuing Darkyn saga, not a satisfying resolution of the relationship between hero and heroine (who really seem like an afterthought).

I'm not a slave to genre -- I like Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series, which is not strictly horror or romance, but then, I don't expect Hamilton's books to follow a particular formula. Even then, the Anita Blake books have a strong heroine and devote a lot of narrative time to developing her (admittedly problematic and genre-bending) relationship to her several heroes.

Still, even though I was disappointed, I liked If Angels Burn (great title, even if it doesn't directly relate to anything in the novel) enough that I will give the second book in the series a try. I just hope there's more romance in it next time. Or that the publisher reclassifies the books. Or that the blurbs are more truthful...

For more information:

  • The Darkyn website, which explains what the first three books are about.

  • Sheila Kelly's blog: Paperback Writer

  • Interview with Sheila Kelly (Lynn Viehl's given name)
    SK: My day starts at 5:30 a.m. and ends at midnight. I write new material in the mornings and early afternoons for six to eight hours, and edit for another four to six hours in the evening. I have no time/genre preferences.
    RK: Do you write more than one book at once?

    SK: I usually write three books at the same time. This month I’m writing four so I can take off two weeks at Christmas.

    RK: Do you outline or write from the hip?

    SK: I outline the novel with a fairly detailed synopsis and about forty or fifty pages of notes that only make sense to me. The book is completely planned out in my head before I write the first word. I rarely deviate from the plan, but when I do, I rework the outline before I continue to write.
    .....
    RK: What are you offering readers with the Darkyn novels?

    SK: I avoid genre labels, but I guess dark fantasy seems most appropriate to me. The series is being marketed by the publisher as paranormal romance. There are strong elements of horror, suspense, fantasy and science fiction in the books as well. Take your pick.
  • Sheila Kelly on the search for the perfect suit:

  • I was facing my first crisis as a professional writer. It wasn't a plot problem. It wasn't writer's block (I never get writer's block. There are many moments, usually around 2 am, that I fervently wish I did). I liked my editor, loved my agent, and was busily whizzing through the revisions on my manuscript. Problems with them I could handle.

    I had been invited by a local writer's group to attend their monthly meeting. At the Airport Hilton. To meet 65 published or aspiring writers. I wasn't nervous about attending. Sixteen years of public school conferences had enabled me to be pleasant and sit and listen to almost anyone politely insult me. Then there was all the hand-to-hand combat training I'd gotten in the military. I figured meeting a bunch of writers would be a breeze.

    No, the problem was my closet. Or more specifically, what was not in my closet.
    [Isn't it nice? She never gets writer's block. She writes and publishes 4 books a year. She works from 5:30 am to midnight. She always outlines. She never deviates from her schedule. She plans her writing 2 years in advance; she doesn't sign her books because it makes her "feel ridiculous".. And she lives with her husband and two children in South Florida. Now, am I being cynical, or is there something wrong with this picture?... Which prompts me to wonder: how reliable (truthful?) are writers when they talk about how they write?]

    Monday, May 16, 2005

    On Ghosting by Jennie Erdal

    This weekend I read another Borders Original Voices selection, a memoir entitled Ghosting by Jennie Erdal. For almost 20 years Erdal worked as an editor and translator for Quartet Books in London, and she also became the ghostwriter for Quartet's flamboyant owner, whom she dubs "Tiger" (his real name is Naim Attallah). Ghosting has caused quite a stir in England, where Atallah is quite well-known and his books well-received.

    I wanted to love this book. After all, what's not to like? Ghosting purports to tell the true story of how Jennie Erdal went from Quartet Russian-lit editor (and sometime translator) to ghostwriter of Attallah's books, novels, newspaper columns, articles, and even intimate correspondence. I've often wondered about the relationship between ghost and ghosted (haunted? ghostee?): what makes one person take on the writing persona of another? And is it ever ethical to disclose the relationship? Is the ghost being paid just for the words or also for discretion and silence?

    But ultimately, Ghosting answers none of these questions. In fact, I found this memoir just plain boring; I found myself skimming... trying to get over the repetitive bits as quickly as possible. How many ways can Erdal describe Tiger's flamboyance? His little eccentricities, like the mismatched socks, the three watches, the obsessive scheduling, and the never-ending drama? The answer: way too many. Perhaps this book should have remained a Granta article... the added length does not add depth or value.

    While many reviews have commented on Erdal's elegant prose, I found the writing clunky. It drags. [And yes, I could cite examples, but I only got 3 hours of sleep last night --(non)emergency at my grandmother's nursing home-- and don't have the patience to transcribe...] There's too much telling (and retelling) in Ghosting and not enough showing, both in her relationship to Tiger and in the sections chronicling her own life (which I found, well, boring...).

    Erdal cites extensive passages from the novels she ghosted for Tiger; the passages from the first novel are particularly excrutiating to read. It's hard for me to believe that those novels got good reviews. But then again, Erdal herself mentions that reviewers often see in novels what they are looking to find.

    Erdal also chooses to include fairly long passages in French, which are not translated. I can read French, so those posed no problem for me, but I imagine non-French-speaking readers would be annoyed. Another annoyance: Erdal frequently cites words of wisdom from other writers -- sometimes she references the cites with a footnote, sometimes she doesn't (even when she cites directly, using quotes). I couldn't figure out the rationale for this haphazard referencing system -- either reference all the cites or none of them, please!

    Bottom line: I wouldn't recommend this book. If you're interested in the topic, like I was, I suggest you browse through the info and links below -- they provide plenty of free info without requiring a large commitment of time.

    For more information:

    • Excellent interview/article on Erdal and Ghosting.

    • Overview of the reviews on Ghosting, from metacritic.com. Most of them are much more favorable than my own opinion!

    • Reprints of reviews, articles, and excerpts from Ghosting

    • "Giving Up the Ghosting":

    • David Sexton of the Evening Standard, in an interview with Attallah, has depicted a rift between Erdal and her former employer. Attallah is, Sexton writes, 'understandably agitated.' The prominent publisher has found in Ghosting, 'details that you don?t normally put in a book' to the point where he claims, 'I don't recognise myself' It is not mentioned, however, that Attallah personally approved the book after being given advance copies. Sexton himself is ultimately impressed enough to find Ghosting 'a fascinating and notably well-written memoir.'

      Adding further fuel to the controversy, Attallah himself has recently published a new book of his own, this time without the use of a ghost-writer. The Old Ladies of Nazareth is the first of a proposed trilogy in which Attallah explores his own Palestinian heritage, published on October 21.

      With Ghosting's much anticipated publication, the media frenzy will perhaps subside, and Erdal will - for the first time - be able to speak for herself, and under her own name.


      Ghosting is not a literary kiss-and-tell, its author emphasises, anxious about the book's reception. She points out that for years it was an open secret in publishing circles that Attallah, magazine proprietor and owner of Quarto Books and The Women's Press, did not himself write every word of the journalism or the books that appeared under his own name--notably volumes of his interviews with famous women, and a brace of novels. Private Eye had long ago "exposed" the situation, in very unflattering, black-and-white terms.

      Instead Erdal is interested in the intense relationship that developed between herself, an editor, translator and single mother-of-three from a conservative small town in Fife, and the exuberant, obsessive, emotional Attallah, who grew up amid the olive groves of Palestine.

      And she is interested in the complexities of the role she took on in his employ. In one way she sees it as just a simple service, comparing her job to that of the letter wallahs in India, who will compose a letter to order because they can phrase it better than the individual who buys their skills. In another, particularly when she came to write Attallah's novels, it became a strange kind of distortion of her own mental space, as she attempted to force her own creative imagination into the shape of another person's brain.

      Her role developed so gradually that she wasn't aware for a long time that what she was doing was not moral — that writing material for someone else to say without attribution was "ghosting." She says neither she nor Attallah ever used that word.

      "He was very ambitious about being a writer, and he thought I could make it happen for him. I worked at home — about 500 miles from London. I didn't feel manipulated at the beginning. My impression was that a lot of people were doing the same thing."

      By the time she wrote the book, she was sorry and wanted to "take a hard look at ghostwriting, which is very prevalent now. We all get mixed up in our heads. I was doing an extreme form of it — especially with intimate letters. Passing off something that is not your own is not honorable or moral behavior, but it is interesting behavior. Why give words away? Words are very personal."

      Her top salary, she said, was "25,000 pounds a year — less money than he paid his chauffeur. He paid me just enough to keep me interested. It was enough for me to pay the bills. The fact that I didn't get credit didn't matter to me. I knew. He couldn't own my thoughts. Getting credit seemed very low on the list of priorities. It was more important for me to care for my family."
      • From "War of the Words" in W Magazine's March 2005 issue:

      At the very mention of Jennie Erdal's name, Attallah becomes enraged. "Our relationship--any relationship I have--is sacrosanct," he booms from behind his desk. Although he knew she was writing a book about her time with him ("I told him more than once that I wasn't going to make him a saint," says Erdal), he says he was shocked when he first read an excerpt in Granta. Choosing his words carefully, he refuses to confirm or deny Erdal's ghostwriting claims: "It was a very close collaboration where two talents intertwined.

      "I am obsessed with loyalty," he adds, clenching his fists. "And she knows how I view loyalty."

      Though Attallah acknowledges he recognizes "some aspects" of himself in Erdal's portrayal, he is offended by most of her description. "It's like an opera, there are many inaccuracies, embellishments, exaggerations," he says. "She made me look like a comical buffoon. To be called illiterate by somebody with whom you have worked closely is not a nice thing. You can be so kind to someone, and then put a knife in them--and the wound feels just as painful. I feel betrayed."
      A little trivia:
      The Nigella Erdal mentions in Ghosting as one of Tiger's girls is Nigella Lawson, now of cooking fame.

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