Wednesday, February 24, 2010

the Most Amazing Libraries in the World, and Writers on Writing

Below are two items from Shelf Awareness that I found fascinating. I love libraries, and books, and writing, of course.

The Huffington Post

featured a slideshow of the "Most Amazing Libraries In the World Part
Two" in the wake of strong reader response to part one
last month, noting: "We're getting a lot of bad news about libraries
recently, as funding drops and major cuts are made, but these buildings
and collections remind us of how important libraries are, and how much
they are worth saving!"


Writers, take note... or notes. Inspired by Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules
of Writing, the Guardian
asked authors to share their personal rules for writing fiction. A

* Margaret Atwood: "You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary
grammar book, and a grip on reality."
* Roddy Doyle: "Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the
garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort.
Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, e.g.
'horse,' 'ran,' 'said.'"
* Geoff Dyer: "Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into
* Anne Enright: "The first 12 years are the worst."
* Richard Ford: "Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a
writer's a good idea."
* Jonathan Franzen: "When information becomes free and universally
accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it."
* Neil Gaiman: "Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or
doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you
exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost
always wrong."
* Jeanette Winterson: "Enjoy this work!"

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

I was reluctant to read yet another World War II novel, mainly because my KCLS Tuesday night book group read probably every popular WWII book written in the past 10 years last year, and though I enjoyed most of them, I got a bit tired of the subject matter after the third book.

Yet The Postmistress has been touted as one of the great character novels on the second world war, blurbed by a number of modern lit writers who gushed about it's "lapidary" prose, riveting characters and insightful plot.
Plus, there's a main character, Frankie Bard, who is a broadcast journalist working with Edward R Murrow to put a human face, or voice, on the London Blitz.
I can never resist a 'female journalist' in peril story, so I tucked in with all due fervor.

The Postmistress is extraordinarily well written, the prose elegant, lush and melodic, even when describing the horrors of German bombs destroying historic buildings and hundreds of men, women and children. Frankie Bard ends up on the train to Lisbon, and trains all over Europe, recording the voices of Jews fleeing for their lives, many unsuccessfully. It's interesting that Blake was able to take those voices and interweave them with the voices of the other characters, Will Fitch, a doctor and his wife from a small town in Massachusetts, Iris James, the postmistress for the town, her beau Harry Vale, the town mechanic who thinks the Germans will land a U-Boat in their harbor, and Otto, a German Jewish refugee who encounters prejudice in his town of refuge. Together they create a tapestry that is sad and majestic at the same time.
There were so many outstanding paragraphs, it is hard to choose one, but this one struck me as particularly poignant:
"This is how war knocks down the regular, steady life we set up against the wolf at the door. Because the wolf is not hunger, it is accident--the horrid, fatal mistake of turning left to go to the nearest tube station, rather than right to take the long way around. Harriet Mendelsohn of the Associated Press died last night in the bombs. She had been covering the war om Europe for two years. If a journalist goes down, tradition has it that others of us in the press corps step in to file their story. And the story of the boy coming home (to a bombed out building, all his relatives dead) is a story she would have written, only better, far better than I. I tell it to you tonight because Harriet can't."
Though I didn't feel much sympathy for Emma Fitch, who seemed fairly immature and wimpy, I did feel compassion for all the other characters trying to make do, trying to do the right thing while death hung over them as if someone had flung a cloak around their shoulders. They all struggled with morality, with the nature of happiness and love, and all were touched by the death of a loved one, in this case, Will Fitch, who speaks his last words to Frankie Bard.
This is a sad book, but written with such tenderness and care, it is worth the heavy heart the reader is left with at the end.
A solid A for the intrepid souls who lived and died in 1941 in London and America.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Queen of the Big Time and The Feasting Season

The Feasting Season, by Nancy Coons and The Queen of the Big Time by Adrianna Trigiani are roughly the same genre of novel, what used to be called "chick lit" but is now just considered 'novels that appeal to women' because chick lit was relegated to the pink ghetto of 'literature that isn't serious enough to be considered worthy of anything but critical contempt.' (Please note that I, personally, loved chick lit books, especially those written by such marvelous storytellers as Jennifer Weiner and Cecelia Ahern, very talented writers indeed)
Unfortunately, these two books couldn't be more different from one another.
"Feasting Season" has a gorgeous cover, and it starts out well, with Meg Parker, an American travel book writer living in the Lorraine countryside in France with her British husband Nigel, a sexist jerk who takes her and their two children completely for granted.
Meg's work isn't considered important by her husband, who also seems to feel that caring for his offspring should be completely the job of his wife, so that he can spend hours getting drunk with his fellow Brits in a local pub.
Meanwhile, poor Meg is left with a boatload of mommy guilt for having to leave her children to travel the French countryside to work on her dream book about French history, seen through the eyes of a photographer, Jean Jacques Chabrol.
Unfortunately, Meg is not terribly bright or strong on morality, because she soon discovers that not only is this ugly Frenchman bored with the idea of her book and reluctant to drive to the historical sites to shoot them, he knows before they get there that a majority of these places are either in unrecognizable ruins or they have been torn down completely, or turned into gaudy tourist traps. Being the creep he is, he doesn't tell Meg this, of course, but lets her become embarrassed, time and again, while he takes her from one fabulous feast of local cuisine (mostly at the homes of his many friends) to another and grumbles about everything, never offering any explanation of his life or background, and smoking constantly. Meg finally catches on to researching the sites first, but that still doesn't seem to help, and the book is always in a state of half-on, half off, with Meg struggling to write in her basement bunker while her ridiculous husband tries to have a 'solar' conservatory put in next to it.
Soon Meg begins an ill-advised affair with Chabrol, who takes many photos of her eating or sleeping and adds one-line emails about how sensual she looks, which is all it takes for Meg to toss off her vows and just rut around the French countryside with the skeezy photog.
On one of her week-long sojourns with the photog, her husband pays a surprise visit, and upon discovering her affair, Meg flees to parts unknown instead of dealing with the consequences of her actions like an adult.
She finally decides to go home to her husband and children, and revamp her book into a history of France through its food, but though she has supposedly reconciled with her boorish husband, she gets a call from her publisher to do another book with Chabrol and she immediately makes plans to run off again. That's where the book ends, too, which is quite unsatisfying.
I found Megs spineless and stupid attitude toward men to be frustrating. It seemed obvious that if this sleazy photog rings her chimes that much, she should divorce her husband and take her children away to go live with him. I didn't really understand her attraction to Chabrol, however, as her descriptions of him made him sound skinny, ugly, tobacco-stained and mean. But her husband was such a jerk Chabrol came out smelling like a rose in comparison, I suppose.
The prose of the book was strong and elegant, and the plot fairly flew along. The characters were a bit hard to fathom or like, but I suppose that is why the novel is considered modern literature, because you don't have anyone to root for.
I would only recommend this novel to sincere Francophiles and those Americans married to Brits. I'd give it a C.

The Queen of the Big Time, on the other hand, was a delight from beginning to end.
Trigiani wrote the flawless "Big Stone Gap" series that I enjoyed so much, and has written a second series that I've been seeking in used bookstores.

When this novel happened along I was thrilled to discover that it is a stand-alone book about a young woman, Nella Castelluca, who is part of an Italian immigrant community in coal mining country on the East Coast.
Nella is one of five daughters who live on their parent's farm during the great depression, and aspire to better things, like a high school education and living 'in town' where there's a chance they can be crowned 'Queen of the Big Time' and carry the Virgin Mary statue in a Catholic church procession through town.
Unfortunately, Nella gets sidelined from her dream of going to college and becoming a teacher when her father is injured in a mining accident, and all the daughters old enough must work in the blouse-making factory to help support the family. Nella's a born leader, however, and is made a foreman at the tender age of 16 and is soon managing the plant. She ends up owning and running a factory with her husband, making it a great success.
She meets a handsome young man, Renato Lanzara, and the two have a brief affair before Renato disappears without explanation. Nella is then wooed by the factory mechanic, Franco Zollerano and discovers on her wedding day that Renato has become a priest in her parish. Though she loves her husband and children, Nella always holds a place for Renato in her heart as her first love. Renato's speech at her funeral brought tears to my eyes.
Nella was an intricate, wonderful character, as were her huge extended family members, and, as usual with Trigiani's fabulous prose, I felt like I was right there for all the festivals, the wonderful foods, and the moonlit nights. This author never leaves her readers with anything but a very satisfying and complete ending, thank heaven, and I felt like I really knew these people and their triumphs and tragedies.
I'd recommend this book to anyone with even a smidgen of Italian blood in their veins, and even to those who love the Italian lifestyle and are interested in the immigrant experience. A solid A for this lovely novel.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

A Video My Husband Made For Me, Plus the Amazon Kerfuffle

Here is a link to a video that my husband made for me, because he thinks I am a hero, which is sweet, if inaccurate.

I actually think its ridiculous, and I don't want to post it to my Facebook page, mainly because I take such a bad picture that I don't want everyone to be subjected to my ugly mug shot.

Anyway, this past weekend there was a huge, history-making dust-up between titans and MacMillan Publishers. Author John Scalzi has perfectly summarized the whole mess into a concise, intelligent post on his blog, Whatever.
Here's the link to it, enjoy.

Amazon fail
All the Many Ways Amazon So Very Failed This Weekend
Leaving aside the moral, philosophical, cultural and financial implications of this weekend’s Amazon/Macmillan slapfight and What It All Means for book readers and the future of the publishing industry, in one very real sense the whole thing was an exercise in public communications, a process by which two very large companies made a case for themselves in the public arena. And in this respect, we can say this much without qualification: oh, sweet Jesus, did Amazon ever hump the bunk.