Giveaway of Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life

Life After LIfe McCorkle paperbackI’m weeding books again!

Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life is one of my favorite books of the summer.  Set in an assisted living facility in a small town in North Carolina, it is the story of several residents, including retired teachers, lawyers, volunteers, a magician, his daughter, and the woman who does hair and nails.  It is poignant, humorous, and well-written:  just about everything I look for in a novel.

If anyone would like it, leave a comment.

Good luck!

What I Haven’t Done This Summer, or “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”

Herodotus Tom HollandChrist, what a summer.

I planned to read Herodotus.

If I were Mary Beard, the celebrity classicist, who, by the way, has a new book out, Laughter in Ancient Rome, I’d have finished Herodotus, written a book about him, edited articles and blogged for the TLS, reviewed for the New York Review of Books and LRB, lectured, starred in a BBC series  and possibly given a poetry reading.

Okay, I made up the poetry reading.

It makes me tired to think about it.

Occasionally around here we drink a glass of iced tea in the back yard or ride our bicycles.

I’ve been reading novels nonstop.

This month, I’ve devoted myself to 21st-century novels, though I’ve cheated with a ’30s E. H. Young because I needed more complex prose.

It has been one hell of a summer, though we’ve taken care of some of the problems.

Here  are the Top Five Misfortunes of the Summer.

1.  Garage was smashed when neighbor’s tree was knocked down in a storm (70 MPH winds.)  The demolition crew finally took the pieces away.  Ten years ago a tree fell on our house in a storm. What did we do to deserve this?

2.  Our favorite cat died.  We miss her.  I loved hanging out with her.

3.  I threw my back out biking, and cured myself with yoga stretches.  (Boring, but good for you.)

4.  I gained the same 10 pounds I’ve gained and lost for years.  Walk 10 miles, bicycle 100 miles a week, it really doesn’t matter, because my metabolism is zero.

5.  My mother’s best friend died on the 11th, almost exactly a year after my mother died.

I know you, too, have gone through your share of problems.

So why don’t you listen to this song by Elton John, performed by Elton and Kiki Dee, while I go read Herodotus?

Missing Carolyn

The blizzard of 2011.

The blizzard of 2011.

I sat by my mother’s bed on February 1, 2011.  I’d temporarily moved into her house so I could advocate for her at the hospital.

A blizzard shut down the town.  I  plunged into waist-high snow and took tiny steps along icy streets. I was one of the few people–including staff–who made it to the hospital that day.

My sib had wimped out. I sat with my mother and we played cards and watched TV.  She wouldn’t eat hospital food, so I went around the corner to Hamburg Inn and got her a burger.

The day after the blizzard my mother’s best friend Carolyn visited.  She was wearing capris, which didn’t seem appropriate in winter, but occasionally she and my mother got addled.

“Am I beautiful?”  Carolyn had just come from the beauty salon.

I assured her she looked great.  Later my mother told me Carolyn was vain.  I think I got that.  But what cracked me up was there they were in their eighties, still very much like competitive sisters.

Carolyn had left her cane in the hospital shop.  A man brought it up to the room.

My mother said, “You forget it because you don’t really need it, Carolyn.”

My mother was cranky in the hospital.

Carolyn came every day to see my mother. When I rattled off the pulse and blood pressure numbers on the phone, she asked, “Are you a nurse?”

When my sib insisted that my mother have Last Rites, or Extreme Unction, as I’d always called it, Carolyn and I made faces at each other while he fervently crossed himself.  The doctor had assured us she’d be fine after surgery.

As soon as the priest left, my mother held up her hands.  “Can we wipe off the oil?”

Carolyn and I got a bite to eat at the cafeteria.  She caught me up on years of gossip.

When I saw Carolyn at my mother’s funeral last year, she said, “Next time you see me I’ll be in my grave.”

She died last week.  They died within a year of each other.

I missed the funeral.

I didn’t hear about it till too late.

What I’ll always remember is her friendship with my mother.  Carolyn and my mother met in their 20s.  They traveled together by train to Chicago and Lake Okoboji, where my mother met my father.  My mother said she pretended to drink like Carolyn, but she dumped her drinks in plants.  She was very anti-alcohol.  The two were both devout Catholics and daughters of businessmen.   Carolyn and my mother got married within a year of each other.  They talked on the phone every day, sometimes twice a day.  They shopped together and sometimes bought the same outfits.  They played cards together.  They went to movies together.

I have never honestly had a friend like that.   Perhaps if I’d stayed in my hometown, I’d have known the same people all my life.

It’s very sad when the generation ahead of you dies.  I picture both Carolyn and my mother as young women.  I was always fascinated by their gossip.

The great thing for me is that Carolyn let me into their circle near the end.

Jincy Willett’s Amy Falls Down

Amy Falls Down Willett paperbackLately I’ve been reading new novels in order to relax and reconnect with 21st century culture.

The book that will go on my Best Books Sidebar is Jincy Willett’s Amy Falls Down.

If you haven’t heard of Willett, you’re not alone.  I hadn’t heard of Willett.  And then about a year ago I read a review of Amy Falls Down, and it was supposed to be very  funny.  I recently picked up the paperback.

This  gentle satire of the publishing industry made me laugh aloud.

Amy, a 62-year-old writer, is carrying a Norfolk pine to her raised garden when she sprains her ankle, falls down, and hits her head on a birdbath.  It takes her an hour to crawl inside, because she doesn’t want to call to her neighbors.  The next thing she knows, the local writer who was scheduled to interview her for a newspaper  is pulling out of the driveway, and Amy has no memory of their meeting.  The bizarre interview attracts national attention.  Suddenly Amy is famous, though she hasn’t published a book in 30 years.

Willett’s prose is graceful, witty, and sharp, but I laugh hardest because of Amy’s attitudes.  She doesn’t go to doctors:  she wants death to surprise her. It is only with reluctance, after googling “concussion,”  that she finally goes to the emergency room.

Amy is also fat, and has no real problem with this.

Amy had enjoyed good health throughout her life without effort, eating and drinking as she pleased, exercising only when there was a point to it.  She was in terrible shape now, overweight and sedentary, but still she rarely even got a cold.  Living like a hermit protected her from germs.  Until today she had never injured herself significantly, while all around her slim, gusto-grabbing women keeled over dead during marathons, fainted from salt-deprivation in the checkout lines of Jimbo’s, crippled themselves with shin splints, got gnawed on by mountain lions and medavaced from wilderness areas, and generally drove up health insurance rates for the chain-smoking obese who had the good sense to stay still.  When they weren’t endangering themselves, these medically pious types got whole-body scans and BMI reports and knew their cholesterol and blood pressure numbers by heart.  How they must love their doctor visits!

amy-falls-down WillettAre you laughing yet?

Her old agent gets in touch with her, sets up several speaking engagements and interviews, and before you know it, she is charming audiences with her outspokenness.

She keeps a blog called Go Away, which is ignored until her interviews go viral.

At a “Whither Publishing” panel discussion, which her agent bullies her into attending, a Norman Mailer-like writer named Davy Goonan charms the audience by  “inveighing against tweets, apps, blogs, book trailers, book launches, and the very notion that writing and marketing should be accomplished by the same person.” Then he takes it too far. The hilarious  Q&A session afterwards is done by tweets, and C-Span decides to show all the tweets at the bottom of the screen.  Amy finds it hilarious when she sees the video:

Under a snoozing Davy Goonan, electronic ticker-tape read Magugah OOH MY OOH MY OOH MY>>>TEEN SEX CHAT VIDS.  As Jenny Marzen gamely attempted to address an incoherent tweet about the need for a “Very Young Adult Niche,” all too coherent messages crawled beneath her earnest, animated face, HORNDOGGIE1998 HEY HOTTIE MCHOOTIE CHECK OUT MY #GARDEN WEASEL…

Amy isn’t a caricature:  she has had her share of sadness.  Her gay husband, Max, her best friend, died 30 years ago of AIDS.  At her writers’ workshop, she also survived trauma after her most talented student took out a gun  and shot two of the students.  (Willett does make this funny, though.)  She keeps her distance from people, astonished that her former workshop students are so fond of her. (But no wonder they’ve bonded.)  She  prefers teaching online.

The novel is in the tradition of  ther satires about writers, among them Anthony Burgess’s riotous Enderby quartet and Howard Jacobson’s  hysterically funny novel, Zoo Time.  I’m not quite sure I altogether approve of Amy’s growth into a more likable person–I liked her acerbity–but it is one of my favorite books of the year.  I can’t think of many women’s novels about writers:  is this male turf?  Let me know.

Is this a future Virago?  Maybe.

D. J. Taylor Wins the Sidewise Award for Alternate History

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor, a brilliant novelist, biographer, journalist, and critic, is one of our best 21st-century writers.   His historical novel, Derby Day, was nominated in 2011 for the Man Booker Prize, and his biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Award in 2003.

Now his elegant novel, The Windsor Faction, has won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History.

The Sidewise Award, which is given at the World Science Fiction Convention (LonCon this year, because it was in London), is not a prize one associates with Oxford-educated writers.  Yet it has gone to literary novels before:  in 2007, Michael Chabon won it for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,  in 2004 it went to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and in 1998 to Stephen Fry’s Making History.

And this year, in strange wrinkle in time, or do I mean in alternate histories, there was a tie between Taylor’s The Windsor Faction and Bryce Zabel’s Surrounded by Enemies:  What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?, a self-published novel written in the form of a book based on a tabloid magazine. (Fans and detractors of the Kennedys may very well find it interesting:  I wrote about it here.)  Perhaps it won’t surprise you that Taylor’s style is more to my taste, but I also find it fascinating that SF is open to self-published books. 

Windsor Faction d. j. taylorI have written about The Windsor Faction here and here, so I will only talk about it briefly.  Taylor’s suspenseful, unputdownable novel explores the question of what might have happened in World War II if King Edward VIII did not abdicate the throne. In Taylor’s novel, the king’s mistress, the divorced Wallis Simpson, whom Edward married in real life, dies in 1936.  And because Edward had fascist sympathies, a powerful pro-Hitler group forms what they call  “The King’s Party” or “The Windsor Faction.”   Taylor creates the details of a vivid 1930s atmosphere, and describes weekend parties,  politics, and the workplace.  Beverley Nichols, a popular novelist and garden writer (have you read Merry Hall?), is one of the main characters. But by far my favorite character is Cynthia Kirkpatick, a bored young woman living in Colombo with her parents, who, on her return to England, works at a spy-ridden literary magazine.

Since I am known for abandoning contemporary fiction on p. 50 (a practice I encourage), it is quite unusual for me to read a number of books by living writers.  This year I have read five of Taylor’s. 

What makes me read a living writer?    I much prefer to read writers who are more brilliant than myself.  To take examples from the dead, I might in a pinch be able to write a low-rent D. E. Stevenson  (fans will diasgree!:)), but I could never possibly toss off a Barbara Pym or a Pamela Hansford Johsnon.

I’d much rather read books than write.

By the way, the Sidewise Award for Best Short Form Alternate History went to Vylar Kaftan for “The Weight of the Sunrise.”

You can read more about the Sidewise Awards here.

The New Haruki Murakami, Reviewers, & Rock Stars

murakamiI’m looking forward to reading the new Haruki Murakami, which, by the way, has a lovely design, but I have yet to finish the old new Murakami, 1Q84.  Presumably I’ll write about 1Q84 soon, but right now I’m enjoying it too much to think about it.  An old boyfriend, who claimed the whirring of my mind kept him awake at night, would have been thrilled.

On Sunday morning I yelled at my husband from the kitchen,  “Patti Smith reviewed the Haruki Murakami for The New York Times.”

My husband yelled back, “He’s overrated.”

1Q84 is the first Murakami I’ve read.  A few years ago, after a book buyer for a store in Seattle told The New York Times Book Review that Murakami’s  books are among the most stolen, I resolved to read Murakami.

And reading a rocker’s review strengthened my resolve to read the new book.   I don’t know why I found it exciting that a rock star has reviewed Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Rocker, writer? Not the same thing, right?  But increasingly they are the same thing.  There are so many rock memoirs on the market: Keith Richards, Morrissey, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Cyndi Lauper, Rick Springfield…most of them ghosted, I’m sure.

I’m not a big fan of Patti Smith.  In college, when art students listened to Patti, I much preferred Bonnie Raitt’s bluesy classics.  Although Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, won the National Book Award, her distinctive style is not to my taste.  She uses a lot of adjectives in short, poetic sentences.  Her prose is striking, but wordy.

But since the rock aspect of Murakami fascinates so many of us, he and Smith make a good pair.  In the first paragraph, she delves into the rock parallels of his popularity.

A devotional anticipation is generated by the announcement of a new Haruki Murakami book. Readers wait for his work the way past generations lined up at record stores for new albums by the Beatles or Bob Dylan. There is a happily frenzied collective expectancy — the effect of cultural voice, the Murakami effect. Within seven days of its midnight release, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” sold over one million copies in Japan.

This interesting but awkward review seems to me to be in need of some editing.  Of course if you edit too much the distinctive Smith voice isn’t there.  Even the first sentence, with its redundant adjective and strange choice of the passive voice of the verb,  is clumsy.

The more traditional reviews work better for me.  Marie Arana, a writer and the former editor of The Washington Post Book World, has written a much stronger work of criticism for The Washington Post. I appreciate her smooth, articulate explication of the Liszt and Goethe references.

Soon it is clear that Tsukuru’s “years of pilgrimage” are an echo of Franz Liszt’s masterwork for the piano, “Années de pèlerinage,” especially its elegiac solo “Le mal du pays” (or “homesickness”), a melody that worms its way into the heart of our hero and suffuses his story with an exquisite sadness. Add to its haunting strains Liszt’s inspiration for that music — Goethe’s groundbreaking 19th-century novel about disillusionment, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” — and “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” becomes a virtual symphony of literary and musical referents. Murakami’s wizardry lies in his ability to pack all that cultural and spiritual resonance into a book that is as tightly wound as a Dashiell Hammett mystery.

So what am I trying to say?

I’m a “pop” blogger myself, but when it comes right down to it, I don’t like  too much pop mixed into professional book reviews.  One of the comforting things about the TLS, the only  book review publication I subscribe to, is that it’s “old school.” The TLS is unlikely to surprise me with a review by Patti Smith.  In fact,  TLS’s Patti Smith is Lydia Davis, whose name often pops up in the N.B. column at the back.  I think somebody has a little crush.

The TLS is holding the line with traditional criticism, while The New York Times Book Review is trawling for new readers.  Both publications need new readers, I suppose, but unless the NYTBR hires a rock band, how can they keep it up?

English Money & Iced Coffee

Woman shopping at grocery store“Oh, this will work.  English money,” I say sarcastically.

The barista smiles vaguely, not having the faintest idea what I’m on about.

I’m trying to pay with exact change, but my quarters are one pound coins.

I flew home from London with an envelope of English money.  I left a big tip for the maid–I’m sure she was happy–because I was too lazy to spend it.  Well, I wasn’t so much lazy, as unable to decode the coins without taking off my bifocals.  And when you pay with paper, you get change.

My husband thinks the money is cute.  “Thank you.”  He thinks it’s a gift.  He promised to go to London with me next year, but he is afraid of flying, so I’m now thinking, Lake Okoboji.

English one-pound coins are still clanking around in my billfold, Queen Elizabeth on one side, a dragon on the other.

And I’m thinking of that scene in Game of Thrones, you know, where Princess Daenerys hatches the dragon eggs that everyone had thought were dead.  Anyway, something like that happens.  Daenerys belongs to the “blood of the dragon.”

Does that tell you I know nothing about English history?

It just might!

Anyway, we don’t have dragons on our money here.

My late mother would consider my paying with paper or cards wasteful. She always paid with exact change. There would be a big line behind us and she’d carefully pick out all her quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies.  It drove me crazy.  As a result, I’m always in a hurry.  I get back a ton of change, and eventually take it to the bank and change it into dollars.  Magical!

My mother died last August, and after a year of talking to her ghost, I have adopted the exact change habit.   It’s kind of the same ritual Daenerys used to hatch the dragon eggs.  Now my mother is a happier ghost.

“Does that look about right?”  I say cheerfully when I present the coins.  God knows, I’m out of practice.

The barista and I have sorted the money, but now, as he goes to pour my iced coffee, he asks, “Do you want ice in that?”

DO I WANT ICE IN MY ICED COFFEE?